I hate the phrase, “Love the sinner; hate the sin.”
To be clear, I don’t deny that God hates sin, or that it has dire consequences, or that it exists, or that everyone does it, or that it’s the reason Christ had to come to earth and be crucified in the flesh. I affirm these beliefs. They are not the reason I hate “Love the sinner; hate the sin.”
I hate the phrase because I think it’s a totally screwed-up, backwards, un-Christlike, and unbiblical way to approach ministry and the world in general.
It may be a corrupted bastardization of “Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum,” a quote from a letter by Augustine of Hippo that can be roughly translated as “With love for mankind and hatred for sin.” I have fewer problems with that construction; unlike its modern-day successor, it does not create a subtle but virtually insurmountable divide between speaker and those spoken of.
But personally, I think the phrase and its popularity owe more to fire-and-brimstone Bible passages like Colossians 3:6 and the beloved “clobber verse” 1 Corinthians 6:9 — which, divorced of their immediate context and the bulk of New Testament teaching — present a picture of a wrathful God who can hardly wait to get the lake of fire bubbling.
But if — just for the fun of it — we did take a tiny glance at the context here, I daresay we’d find admonitions that run strongly against the grain of “Love the sinner; hate the sin.”
For example, while Colossians 3:6 does say, “On account of these things the wrath of God is coming,” you have to go back a verse to reveal what “these things” are. I’ll give you a hint: What is described as inciting God’s wrath is not Gay Pride Week or Planned Parenthood.
What Paul said makes God angry was the sin in the lives of the Christians to whom he was writing. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you ,” Colossian 3:5 orders, “sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”
1 Corinthians 6 concludes with a similarly introspective remark. Immediately following his well-known list of all the types of sinners who will not inherit heaven, Paul writes, “ And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
You simply cannot sum up these teachings as “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” You’d have to amend it to, “Love sinners; hate the sin in ourselves.”
Nor do I see “Love the sinner; hate the sin” embodied by Jesus. If anything, his motto was “Love the sinner; hate religious hypocrisy.” Many of his most famous parables, such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, feature protagonists who are by no means paragons of virtue, yet are nonetheless showered with selfless love and care — all without any mention of wrath or judgment.
These stories, of course, were simply echoes of how he lived his life. Those whom contemporary society had deemed the “worst” sinners — prostitutes, adulterers, crooks, and tax collectors — were welcome at his table. He reserved his anger for the self-righteous religious teachers and anyone else who belabored the speck in his brother’s eye while ignoring the log lodged in his own .
Hanging on a Roman cross — the rebellion and disobedience of the ages upon his naked, bloody shoulders — we can guess that there is no time in history in which God more keenly felt the weight of the sins of man. But he showed no wrath then either. Instead, he begged his Father to forgive those who murdered him and promised salvation to a penitent thief whose offenses were so severe that the authorities had sentenced him to a gruesome death.
The real problem with “Love the sinner; hate the sin” is that hate comes so much more naturally to us. If we seek to follow a command to love something and hate something else, we will naturally gravitate toward the hating and neglect the loving.
And when you start hating sin, you’ll find it is oh so much easier to hate other people’s sin — i.e., sins toward which you have no particular inclination — than your own. Which makes you no less sinful than those you judge, but a lot more hypocritical.
I say let's focus on just trying to “love the sinner” for a while. When and if we get that down — if we learn to truly love sinners as Jesus did — then maybe we can talk about hating their sins.
Tyler Francke is a print journalist and freelance writer in the Pacific Northwest. He is the founder and lead contributor of God of Evolution — a blog promoting the harmony of biblical Christianity and mainstream science — and author of Reoriented, a novel due to be released in 2014 by TouchPoint Press.
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