More about the Christian life

Hate the Sin, but Love the Sinner

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.
—1 Timothy 1:15-16, NIV (Paul speaking)

For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.
—Luke 19:10, NIV (Jesus speaking)

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
—Romans 5:8, NIV

Hate the sin, but love the sinner.
—Popular evangelism technique not given in scripture

I have heard a lot of people bandy about the phrase, “Hate the sin, but love the sinner,” as if it were some sort of dominical command. Did Jesus ever command us to get all lathered up about sin? What is the scriptural warrant for such a proposition? I am not aware of any place in scripture where this is commended to us as a general rule of life or a method of ministry.

I have known a number of people who have invoked that principle, but none of them were able to maintain the fine distinction and not wind up hating the sinner. In fact, have never met a person who sighed soulfully, “That minister hates my sin, but I know he really loves me.” Rather once I met a disconsolate man who spoke bitterly of a fire-breathing Baptist pastor to whom he had gone in search of absolution and to mend his life. The pastor violated the confidence, decried the man’s sins in public, stripped him of all honor and dignity, cast him out of the church, estranged him from his family, and separated him from his friends. He was left alone and in tears and on the verge of suicide—but a vestige of faith remained and I was able to console him. Just about every suicidal person I’ve talked to has someone in the background who tried to hate the sin and love the sinner, but got it all mixed up, and pushed the person to the brink, not of salvation, but of hell.

“Hate the sin, but love the sinner,” is a quote from Mahatma Ghandi, not Jesus Christ. I think Satan twists it and passes it off as a Scripture quotation, to get us one step closer to hating sinners, so that we will chase off as unworthy the very people we were sent to save. At least, that’s how it usually ends; when we are finally perverted into thinking that compassion is weakness and a hard heart is moral discernment. Woe to those who fall into this trap! When Jesus returns, they stand covered with the blood of the sheep they chased into the wolf pack, expecting Him to say, “Thou good and faithful servant,” but instead He says to them, “Get out of my chair!”

You can only “hate the sin and love the sinner” by committing three sins. First, you must judge that the other person’s activity is a sin. Second, you must judge that the other person is a sinner. Third, you have made yourself a judge of sin, even though as a sinner, you are not qualified to judge sin.

Some people point to this passage to give themselves permission, or even a mandate, to hate sin in other people:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good
—Romans 12:9, NRSV

That passage does not give you permission to hate other people’s sin, it requires you to hate your own sin. Look at the context. Can you make someone else’s love genuine? No, you can only make your own love genuine. Can you make another person hold fast to what is good? No, you can only make yourself do that. You can only hate the sin that is inside you, because you are the only human being who can can see into your innermost being. Since you cannot see inside other people, you cannot correctly identify what is inside them, and that means that you are not commanded, permitted, or even qualified to hate someone else’s sin. On the other hands, you are not just qualified and permitted, you are commanded to love sinners.

If, despite all this, you are a special person whom God has authorized to judge sins, think of this: Many times patients are so ill, that if they knew the true extent of their illness, just their despair could kill them. So doctors work diplomatically, dispensing information only as it is needed to help the patient along. If a surgeon told your mother the brutal truth, and it caused her to die of a heart attack, wouldn’t you hold the surgeon responsible?

Some sinners are so deep in sin, that if you reveal the extent of their sinfulness, in your exuberance of hating sin, they despair of ever reaching spiritual health and plunge themselves headlong into hell. I spoke to a man once who had drowned himself in sin, because his pastor had convinced him he was going to hell, and the man reasoned that if he was going to hell anyway, it didn’t matter what he did on the way down. People without hope have no reason for virtue. The pastor’s error was in attempting to love the man while hating his sin. I maintain the incident demonstrates that it is not humanly possible to make that distinction in practice.

Can’t a herald of the gospel have the grace and tact of a surgeon and still be effective? And if not, how can a purveyor of bad news be called an evangelist? Shall we minimize sin? By no means! But didn’t someone important say that laws were made for people and not people for laws? What good is it if orthodoxy is vindicated, but all the sinners are lost? So why waste time hating sin, when there are sinners who need to be loved?