Member Mailbag – I hear this term a lot: “hate the sin, but love the sinner” or “hate the crime, but not the criminal.” It sounds like an excuse to hang out with people, while ignoring their sin.
I find it hard to separate the sin from the sinner. I’m not saying I hate people. The analogy I’ve come up with is if someone broke into a home and killed a wife or child. Or maybe a drunk driver slammed into a family and killed a spouse.
I would blame the person and hold him responsible. I would not blame the sin for what happened. Surely the people who say, “Hate the sin, but love the sinner” would want the person in prison.
While I don’t want to ignore my duty to love the sinner and hang out with them like Jesus did, I’m confused. Something does not sound right.
You raise a good and thoughtful question about a phrase that has been tossed around Christianity for a long time. It is one of those bumper sticker statements or fiery pulpit lines that sounds good in the moment, but lacks depth and needs more explanation and nuance, hence your question.
It reminds me of the caricatured conservative Christian lambasting the gay community. If we “hate the sin and love the sinner,” but never practicalize what God’s love fully means as it relates to the sinner, then we are missing something important.
Though the intent of the statement is good, the danger is it can lead us into the pluralistic relativism we so despise in our culture today. Hate the sin, but love the sinner is a forced juxtaposition of Bible thought that can abuse the word love, while obscuring God’s plenary character and attributes.
Whenever we take two thoughts like this–hate sin/love sinner–and put them together and try to create a doctrine out of it, we can create an unnecessary tension that can perpetuate Biblical ignorance while confusing the unregenerate world.
Though the goal may be noble–Christians should love everybody–the result can be bad: God’s justice, holiness, and wrath will be siphoned from His character. What you will end up with is a god that is amenable to our culture, but unable to save the ones you want to reach.
Can we hate?
My sister-in-law shot my brother five times with a gun. He died. She murdered him and was released from her crime by serving a couple hundred hours of community service. His death is a real illustration of your point: how am I to hate the sin and love the sinner?
I am using my illustration because it is real and I have had to wrestle with the “sin/sinner” juxtaposition. This situation affected me deeply as I had to work through what God was writing into my life.
There is no use for me to interact with the “hate the sin” part of your question because I think we all can agree that sin is to be hated. One look at the cross and we all can say in unison, “We hate sin. We hate that our sin caused the death of the LORD’s dear Son.”
The world may love their sin, but we do not love our sin. We hate our sin with a passion. Even if we find temporary pleasure in our sin, we always come back around to a biblically informed, heart motivated hatred for sin (Hebrews 11:25).
The more contoured issue for us to think about is what does it means to love a sinner. Unfortunately, in an effort to communicate that Christians are loving people, some of us have twisted love into something that looks more like our culture’s view than our LORD’s.
What is love?
If hate implies not accepting something—I reject your sin—then it makes sense for love to mean the acceptance of something. That is the message the Christian wants to communicate to the sinner. The problem is that this simple slice of love can easily run afoul without a deeper explanation of the whole.
If we are not careful, we can say, “The sin is not about you. You I love; it is your sin I hate.” As you have already noted, this is a biblically awkward juxtaposition. There is no nuance or deeper reflection about what love should be, can be, or how we are to live it out in light of the real threat of personal sin.
Love is deeper and broader than I accept you. There are other aspects of love that must be part of our definition and when they are, we will be able to represent God more impressively and comprehensively, whether it is in the evangelism of our friends or the sanctification of them.
God of love
- God is love and He will allow a person to go to hell because of their choice to live in sin.
- God is love and His wrath is on a person who chooses to live in sin (John 3:36).
Our God, who is love (1 John 4:8), is also the God of wrath (Romans 1:18). God so loved the world (John 3:16) and His wrath is currently on any person who chooses to live in sin. The fact He allows a person to choose hell does not diminish His love at all.
- God loves sinners.
- God punishes sinners.
There is on contradiction here. If we interpret love without understanding God’s wrath or justice, we will have a gushy, post modern, to-each-his-own, cultural world view of love.
I love my former sister-in-law, but I demand her sin be punished. If her sin is not punished, then I am making light of my brother’s death and I am placing little significance on his life or how he died.
The hard truth is that her sin cannot be punished unless she is punished. It is also true she cannot experience the depth of God’s love until she realizes the depth of her sin (Luke 7:47).
God’s love for me is as profound as my understanding of my sin. If He ignored my sin, then His love would be without force. And I would have never understood the love of God or experienced His love to the depth that I have if he had not confronted me about my sin.
- Love without justice leads to a low view of sin.
- Justice without love leads to fear.
- Love and justice lead to holy, worship-filled awe, and reverence.
God of justice
To ignore sin is to say it does not matter. What would God be like if He did not punish sin? We would most certainly conclude that sin was not a big deal to the LORD. This is not the God you want to worship.
You want a God who believes in justice, a God who does not let sins go or sinners escape. You want a culture like this too. No justice for all the wrongs committed is a world that even our culture does not accept. To some degree they have a sense of and desire for justice. They would even say this is love.
The hate the sin, but love the sinner mantra does not fully or accurately communicate the seriousness of the problem and can easily miss the eternal judgment that is certain to come on any sinner that does not repent. To love well is to punish sinners. This truth cannot be avoided.
If you have a gushy view of love, you will not punish the sinner. You will see it as hate. Sometimes love is confrontational. Sometimes love requires a sacrifice for sin (2 Corinthians 5:21; Isaiah 53:10).
The LORD has no choice: He has to confront sin, which means people will be punished. To punish sin and to punish sinners is the right thing to do. The justice part of love demands this.
Mercifully, our great God of love chose to punish His Son so we, who should be punished, do not have to be punished. The justice part of love was served. God hated our sin so much that He punished the Innocent.
The hate the sin, but not the sinner forced juxtapositions makes preaching from a pulpit easier to listen to, but it can twist our understanding of God by weakening His attributes, specifically His justice.
Can we love?
If you mean you hate the sin and love the sinner enough to tell him the whole truth about God’s current and future wrath, then you would be using the expression in a theologically precise way.
If you mean you hate the sin, but you want to show him how loving you are, and part of how you do this is by compromising the love of God, then your understanding of the love of God is insufficient.
Still yet, there is a deeper issue for us to explore. Rather than thinking about our topic in a generic or theoretical sense, let me ask you this question:
What does your love look like for the sinners who sin against you?
Let us suppose you are in a difficult marriage and your bitterness, un-forgiveness, and general disappointment toward your spouse continues to grow, even if it is imperceptible to others. How much do you love those who sin against you?
- How much do I love my sister-in-law?
- How much do you love your spouse?
- How much do you love the person who hurt you?
Let us circle back around to our mantra, hate the sin, but love the sinner. Is that really true for you? Is there someone in your life who has sinned against you and you are not able to actively love them by your kindness, affection, and desire to serve them? We can abuse our love the sinner mantra in two ways:
- We want sinners to like us, so we do not tell them about the LORD’s wrath.
- We dislike sinners who have hurt us, so we refuse to love them the way LORD does.
My experience has been that most people have a hard time loving those who have sinned against them. As an example, there are too many Christian spouses who have a genuine disdain for the person they married. They may say they hate the sin, but love the sinner–except when the sinner sins against them.
If you are really going to love the sinner, then love them the way Christ did by dying for them (Ephesians 5:25). Let us lower the platitude flag and get in the trenches with them.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12:19-21 (ESV)
I mean, if we really do love the sinner and hate their sin, then we should be spending time with them, helping them, serving them, and genuinely leading them away from their sin.
Jesus is our perfect example of someone who hated sin, but loved sinners. He had comprehensive love that encompassed any kind of person. All sinners and any sin fell within the parameters of His Gospel love for them.
- He gave them time – Jesus never turned a person away when they came to Him, e.g., Nicodemus and the rich young man.
- He gave them truth – Jesus never compromised what God’s love meant, which included speaking about the LORD’s justice, wrath, and holiness.
- He gave them love – Jesus was never sinful to anyone, no matter how sinful they were to Him. He never responded with unkindness or un-forgiveness toward others.
- Do you hate the sin, but love the sinner? If yes, then…
- Are you willing to love them enough to explain the wrath that is on them?
- Are you willing to love them even when they hurt you?