If you’re like me, you cringe when you hear the trite phrase, “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Depending on who who says and hears this, this can be interpreted a multitude of ways. A liberal leaning might mean it as, “love the sinner, accept the sin.” Another way that someone might take this is “love the sinner, accommodate/tolerate the sin.” Of course, whenever this subject comes up with professing Christians, it tends to lean more toward, “love the sinner, don’t talk about the sin.” In other words, love them as they are, and simply share the love of Christ (whatever that looks like these days). But then you have the more dreaded extreme by which certain people love the sinner, by showing the maximum amount of hatred toward the sin. That is, they show that they “love” the sinner through harshly expressing their extreme hatred for the sin.
Other than this phrase becoming a mantra for pragmatic church goers who don’t really understand the gospel, and the relationship between God’s wrath and His grace, one of the greatest reasons why this phrase should be offensive to any Christian is that it is attributed to God. Before this idiom was clipped into a nifty little catch phrase for practical application in talking to homosexuals, prostitutes, drug addicts, etc., it was originally stated that “God loves the sinner, but hates the sin.” Meaning that when God looks at a person, His love for them seems to be disconnected from their crime. In essence, God loves the criminal, but only hates the crime.
I would love to go into why the Bible doesn’t truly say this about God. But this subject has been greatly dealt with by mainstream writers. My intent here is to ask another question. “Can this phrase be redeemed?” Regardless of how people may feel about this phrase (myself included), is there a way in which we can twist this quaint phraseology to our advantage to start a biblical conversation and get down to the nuts and bolts of what the gospel is really about? I think we can.
I attended a men’s Bible study about two weeks ago with my church. We were discussing a chapter in Jerry Bridges’ book, The Joy of Fearing God, and this subject of love the sinner hate the sin was brought up. I thought this would go in the direction it usually goes. People getting offended and drawing strong pragmatic lines, and eventually parting ways. However, that was not the case. Every man at that table delivered some pretty informative concepts concerning the kind of theology this tiny phrase insinuates, and the cautious approach we need to have in accepting/stating this phrase. The most interesting part was how we were able to dissect the phrase in our favor to discuss the biblical model of how God, and how we, should deal with sin. Although this was not their intention in the discussion, it opened up my eyes to the possibility that I can now use this phrase in my favor to preach the gospel.
As I mentioned above, when people use “love the sinner, hate the sin” it can mean several things to different people in various contexts. But from this point on, if someone tells me “love the sinner, hate the sin” I will respond in one of three ways:
1. Yes but, do you really love the sinner? If you do, then why won’t you talk to them about their sin so that they might know about salvation. Jesus, Peter, Paul, James, and all Christians in church history mentioned, exposed, and unashamedly condemned sin when they preached the love, mercy, and grace of Jesus Christ and His redemptive work on the cross. And they didn’t just lightly gloss over it. So if you really love the sinner, but hate the sin, then you should at least talk about their sin(s) so that they might come to know Jesus, and why they must be born again!
2. But do you really hate the sin? Think about this, if you really hated the sin, you would talk about it. People are prone to talk about what they are emotionally pleased and disgusted with. This doesn’t mean we turn Westboro Baptist on someone when we preach the gospel, but it is a valid question to ask someone if they lob this phrase at you. If you truly hate the sin, and know that sin is the reason for which Christ died, don’t you think God hated it too? So much so that Christ endured the wrath of God so that guilty sinners can be set free?
3. Love the sinner, hate the sin? Only if it’s biblical. This was one of my favorite points in our men’s meeting (my most favorite is below). If a professing Christian tries to persuade me that I should be more loving toward the sinner, and simply express hatred toward the sin, I would then simply respond, “only if it’s biblical.” This will hopefully spark a conversation about how God both loves and hates the sinner, and that He expresses both anger/wrath just as much as He does mercy/grace. Only God is able to love and hate sin and sinners, and do so equitably, with balance, and without contradiction. I would love to show how the work of election is a crucial puzzle piece that helps us to understand this concept of God’s love/hatred better, but that is beyond the scope of this article. For now, “only if it’s biblical” is a great way to retort in order to get a discussion going.
I might not have been able to “redeem” this phrase, but responding in one of these three ways is best when someone decides to press this practical dogma against you. Regardless of how we respond, the idea that we must grasp is that asking the right question(s) about what someone means when they say “love the sinner, hate the sin” will hopefully lead to a conversation about the gospel and God’s greatness to redeem criminals to Himself. God’s hatred and love were both fully expressed on the cross when Christ was being punished on our behalf for sin. God unleashed His holy fury on Christ, who became sin for us. His love was equally poured out by demonstrating in that while we were still sinning, Christ died for us. If we trust in that sacrifice, and repent of our sin, God’s holy hatred and wrath that abides upon us, is propitiated. And although God loves us in the general sense that we are His creation, only His beloved, those that are born again, experience the fullness of His grace, love, and mercy.
As I hinted at above, there is a statement that better expresses what should be our reaction toward the lost, and has become my new, favorite rebuttal. If you are a Christian, and you know the true, unadulterated gospel, let this be your mantra: Love the sinner, preach the gospel. (Thank you Sam Young for this quote).
– Until we go home