Should we ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’?

bibleI offered a specific response to the debate on this earlier in the week; this is the more general article I wrote for Christian Today. Some of this found its way into the other post.

It has become fashionable of late, and particularly in ‘progressive’ circles, to reject the mantra ‘Hate the sin, love the sinner’ – and often with some vehemence. I am not sure it’s a phrase I have ever used myself, but it is an idea I am familiar with from my evangelical upbringing, and in a recent discussion online I defended it as having a biblical mandate. Curiously, the person I was disagreeing with thought the saying was harmful and damaging, and undermined the command to love – but wanted to remain my friend. I don’t know if he saw the irony of fulfilling the very command that he was rejecting.

One of the most distinctive things about the ministry of Jesus in the gospels – and one of which we are acutely aware in our culture of division and conflict, of disagreement and vilification – is the way he reaches out to those on the margins. He scandalised the religious leaders of his day by touching the unclean to bring healing; he risked his reputation in order to associate with the impure; he stood close to those whose sin brought the judgement of others in order that he might offer forgiveness. He was very clear that his ministry was not to those who thought themselves righteous enough – the well don’t need doctors – but to the spiritually sick, sinners who needed to repent (Luke 5:32). This was indeed the one who, more than anything, loved sinners.

But did Jesus hate sin? Early in Mark’s Gospel there is a story which even his first readers struggled with. Jesus meets a man suffering from a debilitating skin disease, and Jesus is clearly disturbed by this. Most manuscripts have “he was moved with compassion” (Mark 1:41), but there is good reason to think that the minority text “he was angry” is the original. This is very challenging: the New Testament talks of God’s ‘anger’ or ‘wrath’ as his fixed opposition to all that is sinful, but never uses the verb ‘to be angry’ of God. Yet here is Jesus, angry at this man’s disease. Is he angry at a fallen world, where such things happen, or the religious culture, which isolates the man, or perhaps even the man’s doubting whether he can be healed? Mark does not tell us. But he does tell us that Jesus gets pretty cross at sinful attitudes and actions.

He seems irked by those questioning his forgiveness of the paralytic in Mark 2. When he meets a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, he looks at his opponents “with anger”‘ (there’s the word again, Mark 3:5). When the disciples refuse to let the children come to him, he is incensed (Mark 10:14). In each of these examples, Matthew and Luke smooth the wording out to make Jesus look less antagonistic. But they cannot escape this aspect of his ministry. In Mathew 23 (and Luke 11) Jesus lets rip at the complacency, selfishness, self-satisfaction and oppression of the scribes and Pharisees. He does not mince his words! He seems really angry at the way they withhold the good news of God’s grace, and confine his blessing to a religious elite. Matthew makes the point strongly – he lists Jesus pronouncing seven ‘woes’, a complete catalogue of judgement.

It seems that Jesus didn’t just love the sinner – he hated sin and all the consequences of the way it leaves people broken and their lives distorted.

So shouldn’t we be the same? It isn’t much defence to say that this is something only God can do, since we cannot hate sin without that spilling over into a hateful attitude to people. If I give up on trying to do anything that only God can do perfectly, then I might as well pack up now as a disciple! In fact it only takes a few moments consideration to see that this attitude of Jesus’ is something that we cannot avoid.

How do we respond to the closing of ranks, fabrication of the truth and defence of self-interest we have seen in the recent judgement about the Hillsborough stadium disaster – sinful actions that left so many locked in grief for 27 years? Don’t we feel indignant? How do we respond to the stories of exploitation of workers around the world in order to source luxury goods for those of us living in the West? Don’t we feel the sting of injustice? How do we respond to the relentless accumulation of vast wealth by a few, the wanton destruction of the environment, and the sexualisation of our culture which leaves young people, especially young girls, insecure, uncertain and open to exploitation and manipulation? How do we respond to the self-concern endemic in our society which leaves so many alone and isolated? If we do not share Jesus’ sense of anger and indignation concerning the sin we see around us, we have failed as disciples and lost our humanity.

It is no wonder then that Paul says something very close to ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ in his ethical injunctions in Romans 12:9.

Hate, despise, abhor anything that is evil; stick like glue to whatever is good (my translation)

In fact, Paul argues that this is the only way that we can exercise sincere love towards others. Even if the wording of our slogan is modern, the roots of the idea go deep into the pages of the New Testament. It is not surprising, then, that the great theologian Augustine of Hippo said something very similar. He urged Christians to live “cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum“, with “love for persons and hatred of sin”. (Letter 112)

Reflection on our own experience might discourage us from believing that this is possible. Can I really separate who I am from what I do? Can others truly love me if they profoundly disagree with or dislike my actions? As we get older, many of us recognise how deep-seated are our attitudes and our failures, and it can seem hard to separate these from who we are. But it is worth reflecting further that Paul writes Romans 6 to all Christians, not just the young enthusiasts in the first flush of excitement of coming to faith, thinking naively that it might be possible to live a life free from sin.

We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?… We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:2, 4)

We need to allow our experience to be shaped by these theological truths, rather than allowing our experience to form our theology. As redeemed sinners, we are truly loved by God, and in his love he was prepared to pay the ultimate price to free us from the sin which he hates. If that is good enough for God, it should be good enough for us too.

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17 thoughts on “Should we ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’?”

  1. Thank you for your great posts on this subject, Ian. I just want to make a brief comment: I see no inconsistency between hating the sin and loving the sinner – I hate sin in myself, but it does not follow that I hate myself totally! Jesus told us to love our neighbours as ourselves, so when I hate sin in others I am indeed loving them as I love myself. In my experience there are two main problems with this – being blind to my own sins ( sinning in ignorance), and defining what sin is and what it isn’t. I have found that pride and self-righteousness are sometimes difficult to spot in myself. Sometimes I wish the creed included ‘through ignorance’, in addition to ‘ through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault’.

  2. Thank you for a thoughtful post. I generally have a big problem with the phrase. I quite agree with your comments and, after some reflection, would have less problem with the phrase: “Love sinners. Hate sin.” but the phrase as it stands too often ties individual sinners to their particular sins. When I hear this phrase spouted, it too often means: “Love that sinner but hate what that sinner does.” The reason I have such a problem with this is that it identifies people by their sins, which is not something I see in Jesus. In your examples, you talked about Jesus’ anger at the sinfulness around him, not just the particular sins of the man for whom he had compassion. It’s true that when people encounter the love of Jesus, they are then challenged in the way they live (eg Zacchaeus), but it feels like Jesus first loves the whole person, not just the “sinner”. However when I see “Love the sinner; hate the sin” in action today, it is usually played out as a judgemental love with strings attached. But that might just be my own experience.

    • Thank you, Clive – and I should have put ‘cpnfession’, not ‘creed’, in my final sentence!

  3. Ian I have two questions if I may.

    Firstly, the problem that you are still left with is that some people in the church in your country – maybe even the majority, as church is made up of people from the community around them – do not regard faithful, stable, same sex relationships as sinful. Those relationships are also entirely lawful in this country. So I am genuinely curious as to how you think this situation might be resolved? The discussion is clearly not going away, so I’d value your response as to how we can co-exist in the same part of the body of Christ. This is a genuine, open question. How do you see the trajectory?

    Secondly, where there are situations that we are agreed are sinful, what would Jesus have done with ‘repeat sinners’? The example of the woman caught in adultery is a good one as that example appeared in your first post about this. It is reported that Jesus said to her ‘Go and sin no more’. Just suppose she was brought back in front of him again, having once more been caught in the very act of adultery. We are not told, after all, if she does ‘go and sin no more’. What would Jesus’ response have been in that situation?

    Thanks (in advance) for considering these.

    • Dear Andrew,

      Your statement “… maybe even the majority, as church is made up of people from the community around them – do not regard faithful, stable, same sex relationships as sinful….” is pure, unadulterated supposition.

      I have been at the Diocesan discussions listening to people of all sorts…. and lay people voted to leave marriage entirely as it is in the Church. I have been there and lay people do NOT support the change you are talking about.

      • Well Clive the size of the majority or minority is a bit of a red herring. There are still two views about this, just as there are about women bishops. The question I was putting is how does Ian see both views co-existing in the church of which he is part. What is the trajectory.

        • Well Andrew

          You have clearly asserted a majority, based on NO evidence, when you said “Well Clive the size of the majority or minority is a bit of a red herring. There are still two views about this, just as there are about women bishops. The question I was putting is how does Ian see both views co-existing in the church of which he is part. What is the trajectory.”

          You could have asked Ian “…how does Ian see both views co-existing in the church of which he is part.” as a civilised question without loading the question with you having asserted a majority opinion based upon no evidence … but you didn’t.

          I’m disappointed

          • Actually Clive I didn’t assert anything. The word ‘maybe’ is important.
            The issue remains even if it’s a minority, as those opposed to the ordination of women are a minority. What is the trajectory for people of different views on this issue remaining in the same part of the body of Christ.

          • Again Andrew you are asserting that those in favour of the Christian view of marriage are in a minority based upon no clear evidence at all. You now falsely relate those who want to keep marriage in the Church as it is with those who want to keep women out of ministry when the two issues have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with each other.

            There is nothing in the New Testament that says that women shouldn’t be priests, indeed as Elisabeth Schuessler-Fiorenza showed in her book “In memory of her” there were probably women Church leaders in Acts.

            What you say should have some evidence behind it.

          • Clive: all I am asserting is that we have no idea about majorities or minorities in this case.
            As to the ordination of women: obviously you and I agree about that but the C of E still makes provision for those who don’t agree with us.
            None of this answers the two questions I put to Ian though…..

    • I would surmise (and desperately hope) that the answer would be “Seventy times seven”.
      Which of us is not a “repeat sinner”?

    • Andrew – you have written that same-sex marriage in this country is ‘entirely lawful’. In many cases abortion is also ‘entirely lawful’. Would you say that what is lawful is also moral? (I wouldn’t say this, by the way!)

      • Hi Christine

        I think I’d rather just stick with the substantive question at the moment. Maybe we can come back to yours in due course?

        • Andrew, Christine’s point is quite correct. You seem to want to celebrate what is lawful in the Church, so at the same time as you look at services blessing same sex marriages you should also produce a service of blessing for an abortion.

          We, as a Church, cannot spend our time worshipping the world. That is not the reason we are here.

  4. Ian, I agree that experience, being subjective and fallible, can’t be sovereign: it’s gotta be guided by external factors.

  5. I find it interesting and instructive that in Roman 7 Paul personifies sin (“It is not I that does wrong but sin in me”) thus according sin the power of will and action. Is this a metaphorical personification (as the female Wisdom may be in Proverbs) or is sin a sort of homunculus within — after we do believe in demonic possession and invisible intelligences. I don’t know.

    I do that Paul hates his sin but sometimes he still acts on it.


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