By Tony Merida

OrdinarySocial causes come and go like bad fashion trends, sometimes quite literally: what color bracelet are you wearing this month?

Surely our consumer-conditioned attention spans have something to do with this, but let’s be real: when you care about something enough to devote serious time and energy, it can be discouraging when the anticipated results never materialize.

Many people know they should care for the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed, but few are motivated to do this over the course of a lifetime. Jesus reminds his followers, “You always have the poor with you” (Mark 14:7). In other words, we ain’t gonna solve poverty anytime soon.

How in the world can we keep up the good work when it feels like a lost cause? Good theology.

Theological types often get stereotyped as all head and no heart. This is unfortunate because a few key doctrines of the faith provide the sustainable inspiration we need for a lifetime of good works.

Love everybody, because imago Dei

If we believe that everyone is made in the image of God—imago Dei—then everyone is worthy of dignity, love, basic human rights, and hearing biblical truth.

Those who abuse people made in God’s image through enslavement, torture, rape, and grinding poverty, are dehumanizing people and insulting God Himself. Many victims of human trafficking and abuse report how they felt inhumane after being oppressed.

Those who believe in the imago Dei should live out their theology through practical acts of love for the oppressed and vulnerable.

Show mercy, because redemption

The Bible records for us the story of God coming to save people. When we were enslaved, He freed us. When we were orphans, He adopted us. When we were sojourners, He welcomed us. When we were widows, Christ became our groom.

The mercy and justice of God meet at the cross, where our redemption comes from. We needed His redemption because we cannot live up to the standard God has set. But One did. Jesus Christ is the ultimate display of a life of righteousness and justice. Through repentance and faith in Christ, we are clothed in His righteousness.

Now, as believers, we have power to live just lives, and when we fail, we know God won’t crush us, for He has already crushed Christ in our place. Now we pursue justice because we love God, and have already been accepted in Him.

We want to show mercy. That’s what God’s redemption has done for us.

Stay hopeful, because restoration

The good news about injustice isn’t only that we’re making some progress today, though we are. We take heart knowing that the King of kings will return to restore this broken world, bringing perfect peace—shalom.

In the coming Kingdom, will be no more orphans; no more trafficking; no more abuse. This fallen world will give way to glory. Doing justice and mercy is about showing the world what our King is like. It involves bringing the future into the present, that is, giving people a taste now of what the future will be like then.

When you welcome the stranger, share the good news among the nations, cultivate diverse friendships, adopt children, or defend the defenseless, you are simply living as the King’s people before a watching world. We don’t fight the problems of this fallen world as victims, but as victors.

Work for good not grace, because justification

We can’t keep God’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves perfectly. But Jesus has kept the Great Commandments perfectly for us. And only Christ can justify us. Only Jesus can make us ordinary citizens of the kingdom of God.

Justification means “just as if I’ve never sinned” and “just as if I’ve always obeyed perfectly,” as my friend Daniel Akin has said. Jesus Christ can forgive you entirely, and give you His perfect righteousness.

Justified people stand accepted in Christ. So, don’t look to yourself or your good deeds for salvation, but trust in Christ alone. From this acceptance and justified position, we can live in the power of the Holy Spirit to do good to all your neighbors. Tim Keller explains how receiving the good news leads to a life of good deeds:

Before you can give neighbor love, you need to receive it. Only if you see that you have been saved graciously by someone who owes you the opposite will you go out into the world looking to help absolutely anyone in need (Generous Justice, 77).

In other words, justification leads to justice for others. Receive— and give—the neighbor love of the Great Samaritan, and give Him thanks.

Always remember the people

My focus flowing from these theological motivations is on people.

You may do justice and mercy through large-scale, political and social transformation like William Wilberforce, who worked to abolish slavery. Or you may do mercy and justice through simple acts like welcoming a foster child.

In whatever case, let’s do it all in effort to bless people. Because people are made in God’s image, because people need redemption, and because people will one day dwell with God in the new heavens and the new earth where everything will be finally transformed, we should be seriously interested in how to love our neighbors as ourselves—our orphaned neighbors, our lonely neighbors, our impoverished neighbors, our enslaved neighbors, our racially different neighbors, and our lost neighbors.

That’s how God loves us, as good theology helps us understand.

For more on this topic, see Tony Merida’s new book Ordinary: How to Turn the World Upside Down.

Tony Merida is the founding pastor of Imago Dei Church in Raleigh, NC. Tony is the author of OrdinaryFaithful Preaching, co-author of Orphanology, and serves as a general editor and as contributor to the Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary series along with David Platt and Danny Akin. He is married to Kimberly, with whom he has five adopted children.


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.

Love without justice leads to a low view of sin. Justice without love leads to fear.

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.

Love is so large that it encompasses justice. To love well is to demand justice.

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.

God’s love for me is as profound as my understanding of the depth of my sin.

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:

  1. We want sinners to like us, so we do not tell them about the LORD’s wrath.
  2. 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.
  1. Do you hate the sin, but love the sinner? If yes, then…
  2. Are you willing to love them enough to explain the wrath that is on them?
  3. Are you willing to love them even when they hurt you?
by Phil Johnson

From 2006 to 2012, PyroManiacs turned out almost-daily updates from the Post-Evangelical wasteland — usually to the fear and loathing of more-polite and more-irenic bloggers and readers. The results lurk in the archives of this blog in spite of the hope of many that Google will “accidentally” swallow these words and pictures whole.

This feature enters the murky depths of the archives to fish out the classic hits from the golden age of internet drubbings.

The following except was written by Phil back in April 2007. Phil addressed a common—and seriously erroneous—view of propitiation.

As usual, the comments are closed.

Too many Christians think of divine forgiveness as something that utterly overturns justice and sets it aside—as if God's mercy nullified His justice—as if God's love defeated and revoked His hatred of sin. That's not how forgiveness works.

Is forgiveness from sin grounded only in the love and mercy and goodness of God—apart from his justice? Does love alone prompt the Almighty to forego the due penalty of sin, wipe out the record of our wrongdoing, and nullify the claims of justice against us, unconditionally?

Or must God Himself be propitiated? In other words, do His righteousness and His holy wrath against sin need to be satisfied before He can forgive?

It truly seems as if most people today—including multitudes who identify themselves as Christians—think God forgives merely because His love overwhelms His holy hatred of sin. Some go even further, rejecting the notion of propitiation altogether, claiming it makes God seem too harsh. The problem with every such view of the atonement is that mercy without propitiation turns forgiveness into an act of injustice.

That is a seriously erroneous view. As a matter of fact, that very idea was one of the main errors of Socinianism.

The original Socinians were 16th-century heretics who denied that God demands any payment for sin as a prerequisite to forgiveness. They insisted instead that He forgives our sin out of the sheer bounty of His kindness alone. They argued that if God demanded an atonement—an expiation, a payment, a reprisal, or a propitiation—for sin, then we shouldn't really call it “forgiveness” when He absolves us. They claimed that sin could either be paid for or forgiven, but not both.

In other words, they defined forgiveness in a way that contradicts and contravenes justice. They were essentially teaching that God could not maintain the demands of His justice and forgive sins at the same time. They thought of forgiveness and justice as two incompatible ideas.

Scripture expressly refutes that idea. One of the most glorious truths of the gospel is that God saved us in a way that upheld His justice. Justice was neither compromised nor set aside; it was completely satisfied. God Himself was thus fully propitiated. And our salvation is therefore grounded in the justice of God as well as His mercy.

Our thoughts about such things are almost always too shallow. We take God's mercy for granted and ignore His holy justice. But a right view of God will always exalt His righteous hatred for sin as much as it magnifies His love and mercy. God's mercy is not some maudlin sentiment that causes Him to forget about His holiness and set aside His righteous anger against sin. The demands of righteousness must be fully and completely satisfied if God is ever going to forgive sin. He cannot and will not simply overlook sin as if it didn't really matter.

In other words, the gospel is not only a message about the love of God. It is that; but it is not only that. The true gospel magnifies His justice as much as it magnifies His love.

When was the last time you thought of the gospel as a message about divine justice?

“Without shedding of blood there is no remission” (Hebrews 9:22).

Answering a Skeptic

Repent CoexistQ: Isn’t God racist, violent, and a tyrant because He told the Israelites to annihilate the Canaanites?

A: Actually the biblical account of what God did to the Canaanites teaches the complete opposite.

First you have to understand God created man-kind, therefore He owns them and has the authority to do with them as He wants. If you were to paint a beautiful picture and then destroy it. Isn’t that your business? No one can accuse you of wrong doing.

Secondly, God’s patience and love is shown that while the Canaanites has sinned against God in horrific ways, child sacrifice, idolatry, sexual sins and murder He gave them centuries to repent and turn from their evil ways. But they choose to live in rebellion to God.

Lastly, it shows that God loves justice and will not allow evil to go un-punished. Remember, the Canaanites had done wicked thing like burning newborn babies to their false god Molach. God used Israel to bring justice to the land and point the remaining people to a right relationship with God that would lead to forgiveness of sin and eternal life.

So you see, the reason we think there is an injustice done here is because we know if God were to execute justice we would be destroyed just like the Canaanites. But God’s patience has allowed us to live this long waiting for you to repent and place your faith in Jesus Christ. Don’t wait.

Bibliographical note:

I am indebted to Charlie H. Campbell for much of the material in this post. I adapted the material for instructional use. – B.R.



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Gary DeMar
Gary DeMar

The liberal folks at Sojourners have put together a Poverty and Justice Bible that’s being published by World Vision and Bible Society:

“The publishers of the Poverty and Justice Bible went looking and highlighted almost 3,000 verses in the scriptures to show that God has something to say about injustice and oppression. With bright orange highlighting, a quick glance is all you need to see that God cares about the poor — a lot.”

True enough, the Bible has a great deal to say about poverty and justice. Unfortunately for the folks who put this Bible together, there isn’t a single verse that says that civil governments should tax the prosperous so the money collected can be given to the poor. The Bible does not support the idea of a welfare State. This is not to say that the Bible is indifferent to the poor. Not at all. It’s just that there is nothing to support the transfer of wealth through confiscatory taxing policies. There are biblical gleaning laws, but gleaning required work, hard work:

“When you reap the harvest of your land, moreover, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field nor gather the gleaning of your harvest; you are to leave them for the needy and the alien. I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 23:22).

Private charity is the biblical model. The modern-day welfare State has made more poor people and made those who are poor even poorer, and this doesn't say anything about what government anti-poverty programs have done to everybody else. Biblical justice means equality before the law.

“You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly” (Lev. 19:15).

Jesus told the Rich Young Ruler to sell all he had to give to the poor (Matt. 19:16-22). Jesus did not tell him to vote for Caesar to tax the rich to redistribute their income to the poor. Notice that Jesus told the rich man that one of the commandments was “You shall not steal” (v. 18). That includes voters who elect people to tax the prosperous so poor people can get some of their income. If a person has made an idol out of money, like the Rich Young Ruler, then that’s a sin problem not a political problem. Notice that the apostle Paul encouraged personal giving to help those in need:

“Near the end of Paul's ministry he took up a collection for the poor of the Jerusalem church. Why the Jerusalem church had so much poverty is not clear. The Jews in Jerusalem may have isolated Christian Jews from the economic system. Paul and Barnabas promised to help (Galatians 2:1-10 ). This money was collected by Paul from the Gentile churches which he administered. These included churches in Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth, and Galatia. He mentioned this offering on three occasions in his letters. In 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 , Paul indicated that he wanted the church to put something aside on the first day of each week. In 2 Corinthians 8-9 , Paul wrote that the churches of Macedonia had given liberally and Titus would oversee the completion of the offering in Corinth. Finally, in Romans 15:25 , Paul stated that at the present time he was going to Jerusalem to deliver the gift.”[1]

There was no petitioning of the government; no appeal to Caesar. The Poverty and Justice Bible will only increase poverty and pervert biblical justice if the justification of the highlighting of certain biblical texts is designed to empower the State.


  1. Terence B. Ellis and Lynn Jones, “Collection for the Poor Saints,” Holman Bible Dictionary.

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