Why “Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner” Can Be Dangerous Theology
What does loving the sinner but hating the sin mean? How is it possible to love someone well after they have hurt you? And what does loving them well look like in real life?
Member Mailbag — I hear this term a lot: “hate the sin, but love the sinner” or “hate the crime, but not the criminal.” It sounds like an excuse to hang out with people while ignoring their sin.
I find it hard to separate the sin from the sinner. I’m not saying I hate people. The analogy I’ve come up with is if someone broke into a home and killed a wife or child. Or maybe a drunk driver slammed into a family and killed a spouse.
I would blame the person and hold him responsible. I would not blame the sin for what happened. Surely the people who say, “Hate the sin, but love the sinner” would want the person in prison.
While I don’t want to ignore my duty to love the sinner and hang out with them as Jesus did, I’m confused. Something does not sound right.
You may want to read:
- Should I Separate From Sinners
- Why It’s Okay to Be Gay and Why You Need to Know
- Should I Separate From Sinful People In My Church
You raise a good and thoughtful question about a phrase that folks often toss around Christianity. It is one of those bumper sticker statements or fiery pulpit lines that sounds good at the moment, but lacks depth and needs more explanation, which is the point of your question.
If you “hate the sin and love the sinner,” but never practicalize what God’s love fully means as it relates to the sinner, you are missing something that is of paramount importance.
Though the intent of the statement is okay, the danger is that it can lead you into the pluralistic relativism you so despise in the culture today. Hate the sin, but love the sinner is a forced juxtaposition of biblical thought that can abuse the word “love” while obscuring God’s full character and attributes.
Whenever you take two ideas like this–hate sin/love sinner–and put them together, and try to create a doctrine out of it, you may orchestrate an unnecessary tension that can perpetuate biblical ignorance while confusing your non-Christian friends.
Though the goal may be noble–Christians should love everybody–the result can be dangerous if you do not understand all the parts of the Lord’s love like justice, holiness, and wrath, which can be siphoned from His character if love is watered down to culture-accepting levels.
What you will end up with is a god that is amenable to the culture, but unable to save them from their sins.
Can We Hate?
My sister-in-law shot my brother five times with a pistol. She murdered him. Afterward, the authorities released her from the crime after serving a couple of hundred hours of community service. His death is a real illustration of your point: How am I to hate the sin and love the sinner?
I am using my example for this talking point because it is real and I have had to wrestle with the “sin/sinner” juxtaposition. This situation affected me deeply as I had to work through this tragic narrative the Lord wrote into my life.
There is no use for me to interact with the “hate the sin” part of your question because I think we all can agree that sin is to be hated. Without question, I hated her sin, but I hate all sin–just as you do too. With one glance at the cross, we all should say in unison, “We hate sin. We hate the sin of others. We hate that our sin caused the death of the Lord’s dear Son.”
The world may love their sin, but we do not like theirs or ours. We hate all sin with a passion. Even if we find temporary pleasure in sin, we always come back to a biblically informed heart motivated hatred for sin (Hebrews 11:25). Hating sin is easy.
The more contoured idea to think about is what does it means to love a sinner. Unfortunately, to communicate that Christians love individuals, some people have twisted love into something that looks more like our culture’s view than our Lord’s.
Can We Love?
If hate implies not accepting something (I reject your sin), it makes sense for love to mean the acceptance of something. That is the message the Christian wants to communicate to the sinner: “I reject your sin, but I accept you.”
The problem is that this simple singular slice of love can quickly run afoul without a deeper explanation of all the slices of love. If you are not careful, you can say, “The sin is not about you. You I love; it is your sin I hate.”
As you have already noted, this is a biblically awkward juxtaposition. This simplistic cliche provides no nuance or deeper reflection about what love should be, can be, or how you are to live it out in light of the real threat of personal sin.
Here is the fundamental idea: Love is deeper, broader, and higher than a simple, “I accept you because I love sinners.”
How Does God Love?
Other aspects of love must be part of your definition, and when you consider those issues, you will be able to represent God more impressively and comprehensively, whether it is in the evangelism of your friends or the sanctification of them. Here are two aspects of God’s love I’d like for you to consider:
- God is love, and He will allow any person to go to hell because of their choice to live in sin.
- God is love, and His wrath is on anyone who chooses to live in sin (John 3:36).
Our God, who is love (1 John 4:8), is also the God of wrath (Romans 1:18). God so loves the world (John 3:16), and His wrath is currently on any person who chooses to live in sin (John 3:36). The fact He allows a person to choose hell does not diminish His love. There is no contradiction in this sentence: “God loves sinners, and He punishes sinners.”
If you interpret love without understanding or including God’s wrath and justice, you will have a gushy, post-modern, to-each-his-own, cultural worldview of love.
I love my former sister-in-law, but I demand punishment for her sin. If they do not punish her actions, they are making light of my brother’s death and placing little significance on his life or how he died.
To say his life and death did not matter is un-love. We must have justice; a means in which we affirm love by saying sin does matter and the proper people should punish wrongs. Justice is a non-negotiable aspect of love.
If the good Lord ignored your sin, His love would be without force or meaning. And you would have never understood the love of God or experienced His love to the depth that you have if He had not confronted you about your sin.
- Love without justice creates an unloving world.
- Justice without love creates a fearful world.
- Love and justice create a holy and worship-filled world.
God’s Justice Is Love
To ignore sin is to say it does not matter. What would God be like if He did not punish sin? You would most certainly conclude that sin was not a big deal to the Lord. A God who is trivializing sin is not the God you want to worship.
You want a God who believes in justice, a God who does not let sins go or sinners escape. You want a culture like this too. This idea is where I agree with any victim of a crime. Sinners must experience punishment.
No justice for all the wrongs committed is the world that even our culture does not accept. To some degree, they have a sense of and a desire for justice. They would even say this is the loving (right) thing to do.
The hate the sin, but love the sinner mantra does not wholly or accurately communicate the seriousness of the problem, and it can easily miss the eternal judgment that is certain to come to any sinner who does not repent. To love well is to punish sinners, a truth you cannot avoid.
If you have a gushy view of love, you will not punish the sinner, and you will see punishment as hate. Sometimes love is confrontational. Love requires payment for sin (2 Corinthians 5:21; Isaiah 53:10).
The Lord has no choice because He is fully loving. He has to confront sin. He must punish sinners. To punish sin and punish sinners is the right thing to do. The justice part of love demands this.
Mercifully, your great God of love chose to punish His one and only Son so you, the person He should punish, is not punished. The justice part of His love was satisfied on Adam’s tree. God hated your sin so much that He punished an innocent person.
To hate the sin, but not the sinner juxtaposition may make preaching from a pulpit easier to listen to, but it can twist your understanding of God by weakening His attributes, specifically His justice.
If you do hate the sin but love the sinner, you will courageously and lovingly tell the offender the whole truth about God’s current and future wrath on them.
- Can you love them enough to speak into their lives?
- Can you love them enough to let your pastor know what they are doing?
- Can you love them enough to contact the civil authorities for crimes they committed?
A Challenging Love
What if you explored your hate the sin, but love the sinner construct more practically? You can do this by examining this question: What does your love look like for the sinners who sin against you?
Suppose you are in a difficult marriage, and your bitterness, unforgiveness, and general disappointment toward your spouse continue to grow, even if it is imperceptible to others. How much do you love your spouse?
Circle back around to the mantra, hate the sin but love the sinner. Is that true for you? Is there someone in your life, who have sinned against you, that you are not able to actively love through kindness, affection, and desire to serve them? You can abuse your “love the sinner” mantra in two ways:
- You want someone to like you, so you do not tell them about the Lord’s wrath. You don’t do everything possible to help them.
- You dislike someone who hurt you, so you refuse to love them the way Lord loves you (Romans 5:8; Matthew 5:43–48, 18:33).
My most common experience has been with people who have a hard time loving those who have sinned against them. An example of this is too many Christian spouses have a genuine disdain for the person they married. They may say they hate the sin but love the sinner–except when the sinner sins against them.
If you are going to love the sinner, love them the way Christ did by dying for them (Ephesians 5:25). What if you lowered the platitude flag and jumped into the trenches with them?
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. — Romans 12:19–20
If you love the sinner but hate their sin, you should be (1) spending time with them, (2) helping them, (3) serving them, and (4) genuinely leading them, so they don’t have to experience God’s justice. Biblical love is courageous love.
Jesus is our perfect example of someone who hated the sin but loved sinners. His love was comprehensive and available to anyone. Here are a few examples of how He loved others more than Himself.
- He gave them time: Jesus never turned a person away when they came to Him, e.g., Nicodemus and the rich young man.
- He gave them the truth: Jesus never compromised what God’s love meant, which included speaking about the Lord’s justice, wrath, and holiness.
- He gave them love: Jesus was never sinful to anyone, no matter how sinful they were to Him. He never responded with unkindness or unforgiveness toward others.
Call to Action
- What type of sinners do you struggle with loving well?
- Does your love include speaking difficult things to others?
- Do you communicate hard truth with a loving attitude?