There is an old saying that many Christians believe in: love the sinner but hate the sin. I’ve heard a few secular humanists scoff at this saying but what does it actually mean and is it true?
The Bible says that every human being has sinned and will sin against God and against others, no matter what their intentions may be. Sin is an ugly and destructive force that destroys people’s lives, damages relationships and sours community. Above all, sin is something that God absolutely hates. Romans 3:23 sums it up, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” This has been the human predicament since the Fall.
The Scriptures state that humanity is tainted with the sinful nature and that we have a built-in propensity to do things and think things contrary to God’s will. To paraphrase a current pop culture icon, we were born this way. But if this is so ingrained in the human nature, isn’t rebellion against God just the way we are? Doesn’t everyone simply have to get used to it, perhaps even to celebrate it? Is loving the sinner but hating the sin an outdated concept?
Despite the sinful inclination of the human heart, the Bible is clear: there are no excuses. Just because we are born that way doesn’t mean that we have to live that way. Even though a person may have a propensity to engage in shoplifting now and then or cheat on their taxes every second year, it doesn’t automatically mean that those actions are justified. Both the Bible and the Criminal Code have something to say on these matters. The defence of natural inclination has no standing. Instead, God has directed human beings on how they should live despite how they want to live. Even more, God has provided humanity with the means to overcome their sinful inclinations and live according to His ways through the power of Jesus Christ.
Born this Way
But if people are “born this way”, then why shouldn’t their sinful acts be accepted? One could argue that they have no choice, that is just the way they are. In today’s culture, the prevailing attitude is, if that is the way they are, we have to accept what they do if we want to accept them. In our multiethnic multicultural society, acceptance of people from other cultures is considered a supreme virtue. Society says that in order to accept others you must accept their culture. We are called to see the beauty in other cultures with the long term goal of preventing conflict, hate and war between peoples.
This form of multicultural acceptance has transferred itself into the area of morality and sin. Certain actions considered sinful by the Bible are no longer considered wrong in today’s culture because of this strong link between practice and people. Since accepting people is so important, we have to accept their practices as well, even if we don’t practice them or believe in them ourselves. This attitude has found fertile ground in the area of sexual morality. The acceptance of certain sexual practices and the acceptance of the disposition to those practices must be made if we are to accept the people who do them. In this view, you have to love the sin if you are going to love the sinner.
This belief holds to a tight interrelationship between disposition and being. The old saying, you are what you eat, has been modified to say you are what you do. But what if the “do” is not at all positive? Efforts then are made to make it positive by celebrating what was once considered repulsive. Not too long ago, homosexual acts were considered repulsive, so much so that they were criminalized. Today, these acts are celebrated in parades down the streets of major urban centres.
Let’s take this analogy further: today physical abuse of your spouse is considered repulsive. But if we are to accept spousal abusers, should we not accept their practice and disposition to abuse? Shouldn’t it be celebrated with parades in the streets? It is at this point the logic falls apart. If accepting and loving others means accepting their sin, you then can’t pick and choose what kinds of sin you want to celebrate and others you want to continuing classifying as horrific. This is the end result of integrating the person with the action and disposition.
This failed logic breathes new life into the old saying of loving the sinner but hating the sin. The two can and must be separated. If not, it brings a horrible form of anthropology that equates the value and worth of human beings to their sometimes terrible actions. This form of anthropology has no choice but to whitewash sin into something virtuous. Human beings are more than their actions, more than their disposition, more than their orientation. They possess a worth that is far greater than what the current culture wants to bestow upon them.
A careful reading of the New Testament reveals that Jesus practiced this old saying. He hung around people who were not only despised by their culture but who practiced lifestyles that were truly in rebellion to God’s ways. Jesus was quick to point this out to them. Yet, He saw beyond their lifestyle and wanted to embrace them instead. People have value because they are made in the image of God. Jesus saw value in people that went beyond how they lived and He treated people, not their sin, in a loving way. So much so that He died for them to grant them a life that was far more abundant, rich, free and holy than what there were currently experiencing.
How to Untie the Knot
If Christians are called to make the distinction between the sin and the sinner, how can this be done? The first step is for the church to recognize where is current practicing that tight integration between the sin and sinner and repent from it. In the past, the church classified certain sins so tightly with people that if they committed these sins once or were trapped in them, the church offered no sympathy. The attitude was hate the sin and hate the sinner. Fortunately, the church is seeing the error of her ways and is repenting in how she treats people trapped by sin. Ironically, the culture is following this old error where it now condemns those who do not embrace the connection between the action and the actor with its inverted love the sin in order to love the sinner.
The second step is to learn from Jesus how He dealt with sin and sinners. This requires the church to take itself through a very careful study of the New Testament on what Jesus taught about sin and how He related to people trapped in their sin. The classical doctrines of the sinfulness of man and the value of man in the eyes of God must be looked at again with fresh eyes. Each Christian has to constantly remember one thing: I am a sinner, too.
The third step is to recapture the essence of what the Bible says about forgiveness, repentance, confession, discipline and restoration. It is critical for the church to recapture all these aspects in order to know how to deal with sin, sinners and the separation of the two. Unfortunately, many have a distorted view of these biblical concepts or are not actively practicing them.
Preserving human value and worth while firmly rejecting sin is not an easy task but it is a necessary one. It is something that God Himself has done through the Cross and it is something that the church must emulate by carefully examining the Bible in order to know how to do this. Hating the sin and loving the sinner is not easy to discern or to do but it is critical. It is not what our culture wants to do but it is what Jesus did when He walked this earth and it is what He requires of those who follow Him.
2014 © Ed LeBlanc