Can we “love the sinner and hate the sin” or not?

The phrase “love the sinner and hate the sin” has come under fire recently. Many question whether it’s really just a whitewashed version of hating both sinner and sin. Included in this questioning is the assertion that what Christians are called to do is love unconditionally and therefore without judgment.

I like the idea of love without judgment. It feels nice. But what exactly does that mean?

As a parent, I find myself needing to “judge” my kids out of love for them on a regular basis. To let them run wild would not benefit them, myself, or anyone else that they relate with. They need boundaries to keep them physically and relationally safe. Without parameters, there is chaos. In fact, that is the definition of chaos.

Enforcing chaos-restraining boundaries is a loving form of judgment.

Interestingly, that judging actually goes both ways. Recently, our youngest child told my wife, “I don’t like it when you and Papa fight.” Talk about a zinger! He even said, “It makes me realize why you don’t like it when Josiah and I fight.”

What insight. He was able to make a judgment call on his parents and himself at the same time. And what’s more amazing is that he did it out of love, not out of hate or contempt or dismissal. He wants us to stop because he knows deep inside of him that it is bad for his parents to fight. And he sees the connection between that and why we tell him and his brother not to fight. All of this motivated by love.

It is possible to say, “No,” in relationships to protect them. In fact, there are times when it’s absolutely essential.

When a child snuggles in with her mother and says, “Mommy, I hate it when you drink. It scares me,” her mother has to face a loving judge and is given the opportunity to say “No” to her daughter or “No” to her alcoholism. What a gift! Is this not a painful-but-gracious form of loving the sinner and hating the sin?

But something happens when we become adults and when we step out of the home where our primary relationships are parent-child. Somehow, we think we’ve outgrown the need for others to speak loving words of judgment into our lives. In fact, we tend to come to the conclusion that any uninvited word of correction is “judgmental” and therefore to be rejected.

In 1 Corinthians 6, where Paul will move from the topic of judging to that of sexual immorality, he writes these words:

If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers?”

In the matter of a dispute between two Christians, Paul is saying that it is shameful for us to involve secular courts. One, because we have higher standards than they do. Two, because God has given us the role of judges in the age to come. Therefore, we should have the ability to judge between ourselves in these matters. This isn’t judgmentalism. This is the helpful process of restoring a broken relationship by listening to people, considering the evidence and the the law of God, and making a prayerful determination.

Without lovingly judging within our Christian communities, we run the risk of deepened divides.

In the middle of Romans 12, where Paul is laying out what Christian community looks like — humility; a body united; each one using their gifts for the sake of each other; love — he writes these words:

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves (Romans 12:9-10).

I find it fascinating that in the middle of a call to love, there is a call to judge. Why? Because real love hates what it evil and clings to what is good.

This is what sincere love looks like. This is what devoted love looks like. This is what honoring one another above ourselves looks like. And, what do you know, it looks a lot like hating the sin while clinging to the person who has sinned.

There is a commitment that Christians are to have to one another that includes meddling in each other’s business. For the most part, that doesn’t mean confronting each other on any and every thing that is sinful. But it does mean praying for one another. The book of the Bible that most mentions love is 1 John and it ends with a call to care for one another in our sins:

If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life (1 John 5:16).

Along with praying, which we are to continue in, there is a time for correction. In 1 Timothy 3, Paul writes about those times when Christians get caught up in bad living because of bad theology. Because of this, both our practices and theology need a fresh encounter with the Scriptures. It’s in this context that we read:

Evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:13-17)

The problem with rebuking and correcting (and even with teaching and training) is that they can create an “I’m better than you” arrogance.

This is what most people fear about any attempts at hating the sin: There can be a disparaging, a shaming, a rejection of the sinner at the same time.

This is why Paul tells the Galatians that they have to watch themselves when they seek to restore someone who has been caught in a sin.

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. (Galatians 6:1)

The temptation Paul refers to may be a temptation into the same sin as the person being restored. But it may also be a temptation to self-righteousness in the face of the other’s sin.

What’s essential is a self-awareness of one’s own sinfulness and potential for sin, including self-righteousness.

This echoes what Jesus said:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 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? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)

Jesus tells us that when we judge others, we open ourselves up to judgment as well. This should humble us greatly. In fact, it should shut our mouths most of the time. But it should also lead to self-reflection and action so that my plank and your speck are both removed.

In each of these cases, the people referred to actually know one another and are in relationship with one another. This calls into question whether it’s possible to love the sinner, hate the sin with someone you’re not in relationship with. I don’t think so.

Real love requires relational commitment.

This is why the New Testament’s call to aid one another in our struggles with sin doesn’t extend to those outside of the household of faith (1 Peter 4:7). Where we owe it to our brothers and sisters who know themselves to be called to a life of holiness, we don’t expect it on those who don’t agree to or value a biblical definition of the holy life.

This is why displays of the Ten Commandments make more sense in church buildings than in government or legal buildings. What do prohibitions against idolatry, taking the Lord’s name in vain, and coveting have to do with our culture’s secular morality and legal system? These aren’t general rules for everybody (even though we overlap on things like rejecting murder, theft, and perjury). They are our guidelines, our protections for the holy life, our community covenant. We don’t expect anyone to abide by them other than ourselves.

Would others benefit from them? Yes. But really only as members of the covenant community of our God. We hope that others would see the wisdom of them even before entering the huge extended family of the Church, but we don’t expect it. It’s within this family that we expect it, or at least expect a desire to be shaped by the wise rule of our heavenly Father.

The purpose of rules is to protect relationships. When we break them, people get hurt.

When we see God’s people hurting themselves and others by rejecting the wise counsel and loving laws of our Lord, it is a kindness to draw them back and restore them the life they were created and saved for. This is hating the sin and loving the sinner.

To ignore the sin is effectively to hate the sinner, but with smiles on our faces.

In the TV show Black-ish, the mother tells a story of when she was a small child and her mother watched as she put a fork into an electrical outlet. It almost killed her. Now, she did learn a lot about the effects electricity has on the heart and nervous system, but there are consequences to our “sins” that we should save one another from — out of love.

Before Jesus was born, an angel said this to Joseph, “She [Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). The name Jesus means “God saves.”

Jesus came to save us from our sins. In other words, he hated our sins but loved us. And the gospels show this to be true. In fact, his whole ministry started out by offering people a baptism of repentance, an immersion into a new life that rejected the sins of the former life. At the same time, he loved sharing meals with social and moral outcastes, and they loved being around him. Because of his ability to love the sinner and hate the sin, many of them walked away from their sins in order to follow him.

This is what we’re called to. Not a self-righteous judgmentalism like the super religious people of Jesus’ time, but like Jesus himself.

In Romans 2:4, Paul writes, “Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?”

We are to show God’s loving kindness to sinners of all kinds that leads to repentance, to their rejection of their sins and embrace of our God.

[By the way, the original articulation of the concept in question originates from St. Augustine. His Letter 211 includes the line Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum, which means “With love for mankind and hatred of sins.” The phrase “hate the sin and not the sinner” was written in 1929 by Gandhi in his autobiography.]