“Hate the sin but love the sinner.” I’m sure that’s Hesitations 3:16, isn’t it? How often have we heard that phrase and just accepted it as gospel truth. But is it?
I have no problem with the idea of loving the sinner. I do that all the time. I love my friends. I love my kids. I love my husband. I even love my self.
Of course, “love the sinner” is usually used with regard to unbelievers. In that case, it’s even more clear. We’re supposed to love our neighbors, no matter what their view of God. Yet, often the church doesn’t do a very good job of this.
The problem is that there’s a fine line between hating sin and judging sinners. We end up making others feel condemned, driving them away from the one Person who can help. According to the book unChristian, by David Kinnaman (President of the Barna Group) and Gabe Lyons, “Christians are known for what they stand against. We are famous for what we oppose, rather than who we are for.”
Our focus on sin obscures our vision of the person made in God’s image—the person we are called to love. Consider this quote from Love is an Orientation, by Andrew Marin. (To provide some context—Marin has just discussed Matthew 7:21-23, where Jesus says that not everyone who calls him “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven.) “As I always keep it in my mind: It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and our job to love….”
This doesn’t mean we can ignore a person’s sin. Jesus never treated sin lightly. After he saved the woman caught in adultery from being stoned, he turned to her and said, “Go, and sin no more.” (John 8:11) He didn’t shy away from pointing out the sin of the woman at the well, either. And he certainly had harsh words for the Pharisees and Sadducees!
In one sense, God hates sin because of what it does to us. He didn’t just make up a bunch of rules to satisfy his own ego. Sin is sin because it leads to death. It cannot coexist with God’s holiness and purity. God hates sin so much that Jesus went to the cross to save us from it.
And that’s the point. We can’t do anything about sin on our own. In fact, expecting sinners to clean up their act before they come to Jesus is like asking a person with life-threatening injuries to heal themselves in order to be admitted to a hospital!
But when a person turns to God and becomes part of the church, the Holy Spirit begins to transform them into someone new. As the cliché goes, “God loves us so much he accepts us just the way we are but God loves us too much to leave us that way.” How loving would it be if God merely ignored our sins, and let us continue hurting ourselves?
For too long, the church has stood between sinful people and the one hope they have of redemption. (And now we’re headed to the other extreme—proclaiming God’s universal acceptance for salvation, but disregarding our need to then be sanctified—a topic for another day.)
The Bible makes it clear that eventually we will have to stand before a holy God, totally dependent on Jesus’ blood to over our sins. In the meantime, however, we tend to overlook verses such as John 12:47, where Jesus says, “If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.” Or look at the other half of John 8:11 (quoted above): “… Jesus said to her, ‘Neither do I condemn you….’” We live in an era of grace.
How did Jesus treat sinners? He loved them. He ate with them and drank with them and invited them into the kingdom of God. Shouldn’t we do likewise?
What do you think? Where’s the balance between loving sinners, and dealing with their sin?