Friday, April 23, 2010

"Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin"

Recently I was driving on a highway in upper Wisconsin on a weekend away with the wife. Plastered on the side of a barn visible to everyone that drove by was the oft quoted evangelical proverb "Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin". I have been reflecting on this idea for a while now and the more I think about it the more I realize it is by and large the basis of the evangelical community's relationship to the world. It  of course seems to capture the essential ideas of God's love for his fallen world, but as I have rolled this over in my mind I'm growing in my doubt about whether this is really a biblical concept for two reasons. 

First, the concept inappropriately separates deeds from person. The Bible seems to rather point the opposite direction: our deeds are  a reflection of who we are.  I find it all to common that people rationalize  deviant behavior with the thought "this isn't  really me".  My retort is: "No this is you. And until you embrace that fact there can be no growth". In my view, the mirror reflection of one's identity is one's deeds. 

Second, the perspective seems to undermine the radical message of Paul's Gospel of God's love for sinners. This is particularly pointed when I consider Romans 5:8-10:
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!
These verses suggest to me that God doesn't divide between person and deeds. God loves sinners full stop.

Do you think this oft quoted evangelical proverb is biblical?


Travis Pickell said...

I've often had similar doubts, but all in all I think that there is something biblical to it. In particular, there is something ego alien to our sin... it is an intrusion on our nature, which was created good. Paul says "If I do what I do not want it is no longer I who does it but sin that dwells in me" (Rom 7:21). In a sense, even in the quote that you reference, God loves us while we are still sinners but God loves us as he created us to be, and as he is redeeming us to be. He does not love the sin in us - that is what he is redeeming us from. The problem, I think, comes when we mistake what love really means. Love makes the lover vulnerable. When we truly "love the sinner" we will engage into a relationship in which we can (like christ) enter into their darkest places with them and be vulnerable to them (Christ allowed himself to be crucified for our sakes!). When the "hate the sin" part becomes an excuse not to fully engage in "loving the sinner" then the moral capital of the saying is spent.

Bruce J. Russell, Sr. said...

How about God loves the godless and hates the godlessness...

Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in [2] him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,

Chris said...

Oh, the replacement of 'sin' with 'godlessness' is quite a brilliant move, I think. That phrasing has my vote!

Eric said...

I had a pastor who once said, "If God loves the sinner and hates the sin, why does he send the sinner to hell?" I think it is a good point.

David holds God's love and hate for sinners in tension in Ps. 5:4-7:

"For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man. But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house. I will bow down toward your holy temple in the fear of you."

Michael Barber said...


Recently, Pope Benedict said something, which I thought was profound, relating to this topic. In sum, he asked: How can Paul be said to be spread a message of love when he appears so harsh in his letters?

I thought this was right on and a bit more precise than simply "love the sinner, hate the sin".

jdarlack said...

I've been thinking hard about this one too. Your thoughts on the separation of our deeds from our personhood are helpful (and challenging). It's funny how little sayings like that seem to conveniently serve to pat ourselves on the back kicking others in the backside. I've recently been looking at Jesus' calling of Levi the tax collector and his subsequent 'party' with 'sinners' and tax collectors. On the one hand Jesus sat down to fellowship at dinner with the 'sinners'. On the other hand, he did not minimize their sin, but stated that he had come not to call the righteous but rather the sinners (Mark 2:13-18). So, in his actions, Jesus loved the sinner, but he recognized that they were 'sick' and in need of a 'doctor.' In one sense could the little proverb be translated "Treat the ill, eradicate the illness"?

BTW: I lurk here often. Great blog.

Paul said...

"The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong."

As was previously mentioned, if God separated the sin from the sinner, Hell would be empty.

On the other hand, God does indeed loves us AS sinners. I suspect the tension would wane a wee bit if we understood that God both loves and hates the same person (Jn 3:16, 36)

Jason B. Hood said...

Perhaps we should say it this way: God commands us to "love sinners, hate sin". That takes the definite article away from sin. To say "hate the sin" always struck me as focusing on others' sins; my own, and those of fellow believers, should be more grievous to me than sin in the world, and the object of my hatred/godly wrath.

Michael F. Bird said...

Joel, our good friend Scot McKnight has a bit on this in Jesus Creed. He talks about a better bibical alternative to that evangelical maxim: "Love your neighbour as yourself".

Scott Hahn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eddie said...

I suppose the basic idea is that while we are to hate sin, we are not to hate those who sin, or we would end up hating all or just those who commit the sins we believe to be the worst.

John Thomson said...


At a basic maxim level it seems to me to express something important an true to life. After all we distinguish between people and their behaviour routinely. It is what enables us to accept each other.

Yet at a deeper level other questions arise.

God says, 'Jacob have I loved and Esau have I hated'.

Ps 11:5 (ESV)
​​​​​​​​The Lord tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.

The Psalmist comments

Ps 31:6
I have hated them that observe lying vanities; and as for me, I have confided in the Lord.'

He does not distinguish between the people and their acts though arguably this is a figure of speech.

On the other hand we are called to love our enemies (though presumably not to love their evil).

Definitions of love come into play too, I guess.

Carson writes about this. I think he does so in 'The difficult doctrine of the love of God'. He certainly does so in 'The Gagging of God'(somewhere).

PS In a sense this separation of sin and person is one as Christians we are encouraged to make of ourselves. When we sin we are to see it is part of a former life (creation) which is now finished/dead. We are to put sin to death refusing to see it as part of the new me, the real me. That does not mean we do not own it, confess it, and repent of it, but it does mean we refuse to be paralysed by it and accept it as integral to who we now are - new creation in Christ Jesus.

AndrewCas said...

If "Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin" is a biblical concept then i think it would be fair to say that God could just do the same and everyone should be able to go to heaven without needing to trust in the work and person of Christ.

D. said...

Musing - I would say that God hates both. Because sin is more than simply an action - it represents an infection of our very nature. And since we personally are indistinguishable from our nature - to say that God hates sin is to say that God's anger burns against us personally- as we are sin. That i why Christ 'was made sin for us'.

Derek Ashton said...

Just a few thoughts prompted by this intriguing post...

Given the 4 possible phrasings of love/hate and sin/sinner, it's the best one. Consider:

Hate the sinner, hate the sin.
Hate the sinner, love the sin.
Love the sinner, love the sin.
Love the sinner, hate the sin.

The first is wrath only, no hope. The second is worse: hypocritical wrath. The third is bad, too: an impossibility, for one who loves a sinner cannot at the same time love the sin that is destroying the sinner. The 4th is the best possibility. But is it Biblical?

An attempted answer to that: isn't the whole point of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross, and the ultimate point of Biblical revelation, to lovingly separate sinners from the sin that is destroying them, so that we don't have to be destroyed by sin and with sin? When a sinner realizes he is loved, he can repent and separate from his sin. Put another way: God loves sinners enough to save them; He hates sin enough to show His wrath against it and all who unrepentantly cling to it.

Derek Ashton

Tim Kirkes said...

Perhaps the answer lies in our reason for hating sin. Is it to justify a condeming attitude or do we hate sin because of what it does to the beloved sinner?

Romans 6:23 "The wages of sin is death"

gherkiin said...

I also have thought a lot on this over the last few years - and anyone who knows me has probably had me talking at them about it :S

My take is to change the phrase to make it (for me) more biblical - to the following:

God loves the sinner and has dealt with the sin in Jesus through his life, death and resurrection

That sums it up for me - I think that saying 'God loves the sinner but hates the sin' is patronising and self-righteous and forgets that none of us deserve God's love and grace