Say something frequently enough and others will believe it. Sprinkle in some nutritious kernels of truth, and the saying will enjoy the privileged position of becoming sacrosanct. For example, the phrase “God hates the sin, but loves the sinner” is so woven into our cultural lexicon that I suspect many people believe that it’s a Bible verse.
While not a Bible verse, the platitude does have its moorings in the fifth century Church. In his “Letter 211,” St. Augustine encouraged the nuns in a Hippo monastery to respond to their sisters who have fallen prey to lust, “With due love for the persons and hatred of the sin.” That exhortation from the ancient theologian has church discipline as its immediate context.
Sadly, church discipline is a concept that is seemingly as misunderstood within the Church as it is by those outside the Church. For the uninitiated, the Bible speaks of church discipline in terms like “Purge the evil person from among you” (1Corinthians 5:13) and even “deliver this man to Satan.” (1 Corinthians 5:5) Our current discussion about the oft-quoted and bastardized phrase is divorced from any talk about church discipline.
When claiming that “God hates the sin, but loves the sinner,” most people are referring to those already outside the Church. And, it’s often used to soften the blow when Christians talk about sin. For example, while talking to gay family or friends, many Christians will shamefacedly mumble something about God’s clearly defined parameters for human sexuality, and then quickly and eagerly move to the point in the conversation about love, completely skipping over repentance and turning away from sin.
The overemphasis on loving the sinner at the expense of hating the sin is bad enough, but I believe that the whole concept lacks a robust understanding of the Bible’s position on God, humans, and sin. As the Psalmist writes, “But 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.” (Psalm 5:4-6)
Even a cursory reading of the Bible confronts the reader with the reality that God hates sin. God is holy and cannot allow sin in His presence. Humans, on the other hand, are fallen; humans are sinful. Since God cannot allow sin in His holy presence, that creates a problem for humans. How can sinful humans have a relationship with a holy God? That’s a problem that no humans can solve.
Next Page: If humans can’t solve the problem, how can we be reconciled to God?
Thankfully, from before He started the clock of time, God had a solution. At the preordained point in history, creator God sent His son, the second person of the Trinity, to earth to take on frail human flesh in order to live a life in perfect accordance with God’s law, die as punishment for the sin of others, and then rise from the dead, conquering sin and death.
But how does that wonderful and loving action of God square with Psalm 5, not to mention Psalm 11:5 which declares that God’s “soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence” ? Was the Psalmist simply utilizing poetic hyperbole?
Placing Psalm 5 and 11 within the entire context of the Bible leaves the reader with the inescapable fact that God does indeed hate the sinner. If He didn’t He wouldn’t be holy and He wouldn’t be God. That’s one of the things that makes the good news of the gospel so incredible. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) Even while hating sinners, God shows His love towards sinners. The passage in Romans further explains that Jesus’ incarnation is how sinners can be saved from God’s wrath.
How God’s love and hate coexist and work together is a divine mystery. But for those who have yet to bow the knee to King Jesus, it’s important to recognize that the reality remains that God will one day destroy them if they die in their sins. Sinners who repent and place their faith in King Jesus are placed in the family of God and will one day enter into God’s final rest in the new Eden.
Articulating that distinction or, rather, tension between God’s love and God’s hate is vital to actually demonstrating love to sinners. If those who are still living in rebellion against God aren’t aware that they are the enemy of God and under His wrath, the gospel will hold no resonance for them. If they believe that they’re already okay in the eyes of God, there is no reason to repent, turn from their sins, and find their new identity in the completed work of King Jesus.
While there is a kernel of truth in the phrase “God hates the sin but loves the sinner,” it misses the fullness of who God is and where sinners stand in relation to Him. Further, the way the phrase is most often used allows sinners to avoid being confronted with their desperate need to humble themselves before God and repent of their sins.