“Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” is one of those phrases that feels so baked into modern Christianity is almost shocking to discover it never appears anywhere in the Bible.
At a fundamental level, there’s nothing wrong about “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin.” It seeks to be a more gracious counterpoint to the accusation that Christians are inherently judgmental and intolerant.
After all, we’re all sinners, and God doesn’t hate us, right?
“Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” conveniently makes a distinction between the sinner and the sin. And this is one of the reasons that phrase is so attractive to so many Christians – it grants the appearance of generosity without the need to sacrifice (or honestly wrestle with) your convictions.
However, while spoken with the best intentions, “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” often ends up being more beneficial to the person saying the words than it is to the person hearing them.
In Torn, Justin Lee writes,
“The basic point of the phrase is true. But “love the sinner, hate the sin” feels very different depending on which side of the table you’re sitting on. To the person doing the “loving,” it feels very generous: Even though this person is a sinner, I’m going to treat them with love and compassion!”
“I’m a good person,” the phrase implies, “because I’m loving you in spite of your sin.”
However, to the person on the receiving end of “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin,” it can sound frustratingly judgmental, condescending, and manipulative.
“Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” highlights the virtues of one person against the perceived sinfulness of another, conveniently placing the ‘Lover’ in a position of moral superiority over the ‘Sinner.’
It’s not compassion, and it’s definitely not grace.
In a powerful story found in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus forgives the sins of a crippled man after the man’s friends cut a hole in the ceiling of a packed house and lowered the man in front of the controversial rabbi. Jesus tells the man that “his sins are forgiven” and a lot of the religious people in attendance became very upset.
There was already a system in place to forgive people of their sins. And it was established by God in the Old Testament:
Everyone owed a “sin debt” to God, and the only way to “repay” the debt was to make a blood sacrifice at a temple, a holy place where it was believed Heaven and Earth overlapped.
However, Jesus was doing something different. The religious leaders and priests were scandalized (“Who can forgive sins but God alone?”) not because Jesus offered to forgive sins, but because he was forgiving sins before the Biblically-required payment was made.
This was no subtle shift in thinking. It would’ve completely turned the religious system of Jesus’s day upon its head. No wonder the Pharisees and teachers were so disturbed by Jesus’s proclamation.
In The Orthodox Heretic, Peter Rollins writes,
“Jesus’s understanding of forgiveness was so radical because he did not need people to repent before he accepted them. He did not require a change in behavior before he loved, respected, and related to them. Yet, it was precisely this unconditional love and forgiveness that seemed so potent and transformative, often being the very act that drew people to repentance.”
You should read that quote again. And again.
We tend to treat forgiveness as a transaction. We withhold it until certain conditions are met (or promised to be met). Transactional forgiveness hinges on the assumption that a person will be worth forgiving in the future.
American television icon and Reverend Fred Rogers said,
“To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”
Grace is contrary to our nature. We don’t trust it because it sounds foolish and dangerous. By experience, we know the world doesn’t play by the rules of grace.
But grace should be a little dangerous. It’s an inherently risky venture. But because we fear grace, we shy away from it and settle for cheap transactionalism instead, limiting grace’s ability to do its wondrous work in ourselves and other people.
And sometimes you’ll take a hit. Grace has a tendency to look like failure at the moment because you often get nothing in return. We should never forget that Jesus died forgiving the very men who were crucifying him.
But grace doesn’t mean we absolve people of the natural consequences of their actions. Or that we should turn a blind eye toward injustice in our midst. Or that we shouldn’t erect boundaries to protect ourselves and other people from dangerous situations or toxic relationships.
The mark of sin is unnecessary pain against yourself and others. Grace is messy and complicated and fraught with peril, but it’s not foolish or enabling. And that’s why grace is just as much a communal experience as it is an individual response.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus told his disciples that one of the greatest commandments was “to love your neighbor as yourself.” He didn’t say, “Love the sinner as yourself.”
“Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” sabotages grace because it trains you to see people who think and live differently than you as sinners, rather than neighbors. Instead of seeking out neighbors to love, we become predisposed to be on the lookout for sin to hate.
During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus actively challenged this mindset when he said, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”
And if we’re completely honest, “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” is most likely to be invoked by Christians in conversations or sermons about and against gay marriage, same-sex relationships, and other “culture war” flashpoints.
It’s never used to condemn greed, materialism, gluttony, consumerism, gossip, divorce, or any other “sin” that sits comfortably in our pews.
Instead, “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” becomes a callous euphemism for “tough love” that’s sometimes been used to justify discrimination, intolerance, and exclusion.
In his autobiography, Mahatami Gandhi writes,
“Hate the sin and not the sinner is a precept which, though easy enough to understand, is rarely practiced, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world.”
When we use “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” as a shield to hide our condemnation and self-righteousness, we betray our true intent.
In the book of John, a group of religious leaders drags a woman caught in the act of adultery and deposit her at Jesus’ feet. According to a precept in the book of Leviticus, the woman should be stoned to death for her infidelity.
Jesus was known as a teacher of mercy, and the religious leaders looking to see how Jesus would interpret one of the harshest commandments in the Torah.
Instead of following through with the Biblical law, Jesus kneels down next to the woman, and tells the religious leaders “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
I’m sure those religious leaders could’ve made a convincing case that stoning the woman would’ve been the most righteous and loving thing to do. After all, it would’ve helped blot out the indignity and threat of sexual promiscuity from the community.
We like to think of the Pharisees and scribes as the bad guys of the Gospels. But they’re just doing their jobs. They’re just following the rules – given to them by God a few thousand years ago.
We’re told Jesus lived a life devoid of sin. According to his own challenge, Jesus should’ve been the one to chunk the first stone at the adulterous woman. But he didn’t – he broke the rules.
In Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans writes about how graceless Christians like to hone in on Jesus’s final instruction to the women – “Go and sin no more” – at the expense of the redemptive core of the story.
“So how’s that working out for you? The sinning no more thing? Because it’s not going so well for me.”
Evans goes on to write:
“I think it’s safe to say we’ve missed the point when, of all the people in this account, we decide we’re the most like Jesus. I think it’s safe to say we’ve missed the point when we use his words to condemn and this story as a stone.”
Of course, there’s a time and place for speaking in truth in love and confronting sin in someone’s life, but Christians have already proven themselves adept at that part of the equation.
We’re prone to confusing judgment with condemnation. To condemn someone is to reduce a person to the worst parts of themselves. Condemnation never softens hearts; it only hardens.
Grace, however, does the opposite.
In What’s So Amazing About Grace?, journalist Phillip Yancey writes,
“Grace teaches us that God loves because of who God is, not because of who we are.”
It’s time to retire “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” from the Christian lexicon. It’s manipulative and increasingly associated with bigotry and intolerance. The phrase casts ourselves in the role of moral arbiters who lean far more on judgment than love.
A better motivating philosophy would be “Love the Sinner, Forgive the Sin.”
Jesus illustrates this principle in a parable he shares in the Gospel of Matthew.
In the parable, a man has a large debt forgiven by the King. However, as the recently-forgiven man is leaving the palace, he encounters a servant who owes him a little bit of money.
Instead of extending the King’s spirit of forgiveness, the man demands the servant pay him what he owes. When the King gets wind of this ungracious behavior, he has the man arrested and thrown into jail.
Jesus ends the parable by saying, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from the heart.”
Another improvement of “Forgive the Sin” over “Hate the Sin” is that it shifts our focus away from being card-carrying members of the morality police and towards being what Paul called ambassadors of the “message of reconciliation.”
In Torn, Justin Lee writes,
“There’s no step-by-step guide for being gracious. There’s not a list of rules to follow. Grace is about letting the Holy Spirit work through us to show people understanding and love instead of judgment.”
When people sought out and encountered Jesus in the Gospels, they didn’t do so to be told how bad or sinful they were. There were plenty of religious folks they could’ve turned to for that.
People flocked to Jesus because he spoke of a new way of doing life with God and other people. It wasn’t, as theologian Dallas Willard puts it, a “Gospel of Sin Management.”
In The Divine Conspiracy, Willard writes,
“History has brought us to the point where the Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only with how to deal with sin. Life, our actual existence, is not included in what is now presented as the heart of the Christian message, or it is included only marginally.”
True Gospel transformation doesn’t begin with judgment. It begins and ends with the startling revelation that through the sacrificial death of Jesus there is nothing we can do to make God love us more and there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.
In light of this truth, Christians should be the least self-righteous and most welcoming group of people on the planet. Instead, we’re really good at making people feel as if they don’t belong in our religious social clubs.
And maybe if we pivoted away from “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” and toward “Love the Sinner, Forgive the Sin” we’d become known more for our warmth and grace than our anger and judgment.
Addendum: The Parable of the Repentant Father
In his collection of revisionist parables, Peter Rollins tells a story about the relationship between a father and his son, Caleb.
Driven a desire to succeed, Caleb worked nonstop to attain wealth, status, and power. Even though he was young, he quickly became one of the most prominent and influential people in the city. However, despite all of his success, Caleb felt empty inside.
Caleb’s father, on the other hand, lived a simple lifestyle of prayer, meditation, and charity. He looked upon his son’s materialistic lifestyle with disproval and disappointment.
Every time they spent time with each other, Caleb’s father would chastise and criticized his son for his lifestyle. And even though Caleb longed for the peace his father had attained in life, the unrelenting criticism and judgment drove a wedge between the father and son.
Caleb pushed himself further into his work in an effort to validate his life’s choices to his father. And Caleb’s father continued to look upon his son’s lifestyle with disdain and contempt.
For years, it looked as if reconciliation would be impossible.
Until one day, while on the road to visit his son, a voice from Heaven split the sky and told Caleb’s father, “Caleb is also my son, and I love him just the way he is.”
With the full toll of his judgment laid bare, Caleb’s father dropped to his knees and began to weep. After collecting himself, he hurried to his son’s home and knocked on the door.
When Caleb answered, his father wrapped his arms around him and begged for forgiveness.
“My son, never feel as if you have to earn my approval,” the father said. “I love you just you are – without condition or limit.”
After that day, Caleb and his father spent more together. The father took an interest in his son’s life, and without the acidity of judgment, their relationship began to flourish.
Eventually, Caleb began to work less and value relationships more. Through time spent with his father, he gradually began to adopt his father’s philosophies of a simple life well lived.
Caleb’s transformation wouldn’t have been possible without the transformation of his father – one revelation of grace bleeds into another. Only by being liberated by love, were father and son both set free to live a life of love.