Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin

by Cameron Buettel

We live in a therapeutic culture that seems determined to do away with sin. Adultery and every form of immorality has been re-classified as sex addictions. Addictions to drugs and alcohol are classified as diseases, not the results of deliberate actions. And guns are now perceived as a greater evil than the murderers pulling the trigger. Whatever the sin may be, there always seems to be a way to excuse, redefine, or minimize it.

That determination to separate who a person is and what he does has also infiltrated the church. The exhortation to “love the sinner and hate the sin” is a clever Christian cliché regularly used to deflect people’s responsibility and accountability for their sin. While it’s true that we should both love sinners and hate sin, the cliché distorts those truths by unbiblically severing the two.

Gnosticism Revived

That sort of dualism was prevalent among the Gnostic heretics of the first century AD. The error of the Gnostics was so seductive that the apostle John wrote his first epistle as a direct response to their false teaching. John MacArthur made the following observations regarding the situation facing the church in 1 John:

Gnosticism (from the Greek word gnōsis [“knowledge”]) was an amalgam of various pagan, Jewish, and quasi-Christian systems of thought. Influenced by Greek philosophy (especially that of Plato), Gnosticism taught that matter was inherently evil and spirit was good. That philosophical dualism led the false teachers whom John confronted to accept some form of Christ’s deity, but to deny His humanity. He could not, according to them, have taken on a physical body, since matter was evil. [1] John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1–3 John (Chicago: Moody Press, 2007) 8.

But it was the Gnostics’ personal application of their dualistic views that echoes today in the efforts to separate the sinner from his sin.

The Gnostics’ philosophical dualism also caused them to be indifferent to moral values and ethical behavior. To them, the body was merely the prison in which the spirit was incarcerated. Therefore, sin committed in the body had no connection to or effect on the spirit. [2] 1–3 John, 8.

The cliché of loving the sinner and hating the sin follows the same dualistic reasoning as Gnostic heresies—that we ought to effectively divorce the sinner from the culpability and consequences of his sin.

Worse still, it confuses and corrupts the very concept of what it means to love a sinner. True love does not demand willful ignorance. You wouldn’t simply pretend that a cancer patient was suddenly free from his disease. Nor would you ignore his affliction in hopes that it would go away on its own.

The same holds true for sinners—the most loving thing you can do for them is not to blithely ignore their sin or excuse it away, but to confront it. In other words, you cannot possibly love a sinner if you don’t also hate his sin.

Not Dualism—Dual Responsibilities

I’ll grant that the way we confront sin can vary depending on the nature of the sin and the spiritual condition of the sinner. You might need to show more gentleness with an unbeliever blinded by his own depravity than with a fellow Christian who ought to know better. And even within the church, we need to be measured and considerate with how we confront one another, yet still bold and clear enough to preserve the purity of the Body of Christ.

In fact, church discipline is an essential part of protecting the church’s purity (Matthew 18:15–20). John MacArthur, while commenting on that passage, points out:

A Christian who is not deeply concerned about bringing a fellow Christian back from his sin needs spiritual help himself. Smug indifference, not to mention self-righteous contempt, has no part in the life of a spiritual Christian, nor do sentimentality or cowardice that hide behind false humility. The spiritual Christian neither condemns nor justifies a sinning brother. His concern is for the holiness and blessing of the offending brother, the purity and integrity of the church, and the honor and glory of God. [3] John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 16–23 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985) 128.

In response to those who see the confrontation of sin as inherently unloving, John adds:

In the eyes of much of the world and even in the eyes of many immature believers, such action is considered unloving. But discipline given in the right way expresses the deepest kind of love, love that refuses to do nothing to rescue a brother from unrepentant sin and its consequences. Love that winks at sin or that is more concerned for superficial calm in the church than for its spiritual purity is not God’s kind of love. Love that tolerates sin is not love at all but worldly and selfish sentimentality.

To preach love apart from God’s holiness is to teach something other than God’s love. No awakening or revival of the church has ever occurred apart from strong preaching of God’s holiness and the corresponding call for believers to forsake sin and return to the Lord’s standards of purity and righteousness. No church that tolerates known sin in its membership will have spiritual growth or effective evangelism. In spite of that truth, however, such tolerance is standard in the church today-at all levels. [4] Matthew 16–23, 128.

Some people appeal to God’s unconditional love as if that trumps or invalidates His other attributes, most notably His wrath. But as John emphatically argues, such sentiment amounts to nothing less than a popular form of idolatry.

Belief in a God who is all love and no wrath, all grace and no justice, all forgiveness and no condemnation is idolatry (worship of a false god invented by men), and it inevitably leads to universalism-which, of course, is what many liberal churches have been preaching for generations. Salvation becomes meaningless, because sin that God overlooks does not need to be forgiven. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross becomes a travesty, because He gave His life for no redemptive purpose. Not only that, but it becomes apologetically impossible to explain the common question about why a loving God allows pain, suffering, disease, and tragedy. Removing God’s holy hatred of sin emasculates the gospel and hinders rather than helps evangelism. [5] Matthew 16–23, 130.

We should love sinners. We should hate sin. And we shouldn’t divide those two truths into separate categories. Our hatred of sin should manifest itself in a love that warns sinners—compassionately, but no less clearly—of the dire consequences their sin demands. Short of that, how could we ever claim to truly love them?