Loving the sinner but hating the sin

A lot of the time, we explain our way through the world with a set of sayings. They tumble off our lips and seem to make sense, and they help us feel like we know what’s going on and how we should act. But often, when I think I am understanding or explaining the world, I am merely reassuring myself by using a safe but misleading label. It pays to ponder these everyday experiences, and look beyond the cliche.

Let me give you an example. I was talking with a friend about how Christians should treat homosexuals. I suggested, “We should be like God, hating the sin but loving the sinner”. Now stop there. It sounds like a great argument (who could argue with Christians modelling themselves on God?), but think about it for a minute. Does God ‘hate the sin but love the sinner’? After some reflection, I decided that he does not—and here’s why.

It is not the way God judges sin. Is there any evidence in the Bible that God judges sin and not sinners?

The wrath of God is being revealed … against all godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness … they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him … they became fools … therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts … (Romans 1:18-24).

Is God angry at the sin or the sinners? Clearly he is angry with both. Indeed, can we sensibly talk about ‘sin’ except in relation to a ‘sinner’? Sin is breaking the relationship between creature and Creator. It can hardly stand alone as an object in itself. (The word ‘sin’ is used variously in the Bible and in places such as Romans 6, it is personified and perhaps separate from the sinne. But for the rest of this discussion we can continue with the above analysis).

It is not the way the Bible treats people. Our thinking, influenced by Greek thought, tends to separate people into component parts, each of which is treated separately. The Bible, however, in which the various ‘parts’ are different ways of viewing the same person.

The Bible doesn’t split a person from their actions. Your actions come from your thinking, attitudes and values; your actions are part of you and can’t be separated from you. Jesus said “ … the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean’. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft … “ (Matthew 15:18-19). Or in a most memorable saying: “For out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).

We can not absolve ourselves of responsibility by separating ourselves from our actions. Some contemporary psychology attempts to do just this, by locating the causes of behaviour in the subconscious. But God will not allow it. Certainly, I am motivated by forces I don’t fully understand, but my actions are still ‘part of me’.

Paul’s teaching on the ‘sinful nature’ makes the same point. Why can I not please God by submitting to his law? Is it because of some abstract principle which is thrust upon me? No! Rather it is the sinful nature—that is, my sinful nature—that is the problem. God redeems me not by stopping me doing sinful things, but by giving me a new nature—I need to be reborn.

‘God hates the sin but loves the sinner’ is, I am sure, not the best way to describe God’s reaction to us. But it is popular. Why?

Christians recognize that God is described as being both angry (Rom 1:18, Ps 2:5, 76:10, Isa 13:13, Rev 19:15) and loving (Pss 6:4, 25:6, Isa 55:3, Rom 5:8; 1 John 4:16). We wonder how we can reconcile these two apparently contradictory truths and we solve the problem by deciding that God’s anger and love must be directed at two different objects: he hates the sin but loves the sinner. The Bible has a far better solution. God’s anger and love are not mutually exclusive; God can be concerned for our welfare and also angry with us. His anger is profound and just, not cheap and malicious, and both his anger and his love came from his character, his holiness. When God reveals his name to Moses, it is this: “Yahweh, Yahweh, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished; He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generations” (Exod 34:6-7).

God’s love and anger are perfectly integrated in his holiness. They are also integrated in the message of the gospel. This points sinful men and women to the greatest evidence of God’s love for them: Jesus’ death on their behalf (John 3:16, Rom 5:8-9, 1 John 4:10). The cross is the great sign of God’s love for rebellious people. But it is also the greatest evidence of his hatred of sinful people, for God turned his anger on his own son (2 Cor 5:21). What was happening and the cross was not a safe, simple, legal transaction; it was real and horrible, as seen in Jesus’ terrible cry, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). To say that ‘God loves the sinner but hates the sin’ misses the horror and wonder of the cross.

If we want to be like God, how are we going to treat sinners (ourselves included)? Firstly, we will take sin with utmost seriousness, for sin denies God and provokes his anger. If sin makes God angry, then it should make us angry (that is, with righteous anger). Secondly, we should allow people to take full responsibility for their actions, and not offer excuses for their rebellion (and ours). Thirdly, we will see that people need a new nature and not simply a new code of behaviour. And will strive to bring that new nature to them through God’s powerful gospel and prayer.

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