Troubled sinner: “I’ve done a terrible thing. God must hate me.”
Well-meaning friend: “No, that isn’t true. God hates the sin, but loves the sinner.”
That’s some pretty typical Lifetime TV counseling. “God hates the sin, but loves the sinner.” I would guess it’s also been the theme of more than one sermon preached from the pulpits of American Christianity. It’s a handy theological sound bite. But is it true?
Short answer: The Truth is too big to fit into that saying.
Usually, when people say, “God hates the sin, but loves the sinner,” what they mean is, “God hates the sin, but God does not hate the sinner. God loves sinners; He doesn’t hate them.”
According to the Bible, God always hates sin, and God always hates sinners. The Psalmist says,
For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man (Ps. 5:4-6).
God does not send sins to hell. He sends sinners to hell. Nor is sin the child of God’s wrath. Sinners are.
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind (Eph. 2:1-3).
So God hates both the sin and the sinner. The question is, does God also love sinners?
That answer, too, is bigger than a simple “yes” or “no.”
First, we need to remember that the word “love” has shades of meaning, and here the New Testament words for “love” are helpful. Agape is the love of selfless devotion to another, whether the other is worthy or not, whether the love is requited or not. Philos is the love of friendship, the love that likes another person, that is pleased with a person and enjoys that person’s company.
The Father loves (agape) the Son (Jn. 3:35). The Father also loves (philos) the Son (Jn. 5:20).
At the same time that God hated the world of unbelieving sinners, the Father loved (agape) the world of unbelieving sinners (Jn. 3:16), but not in such a way that He loves (philos) the unbelieving sinner.
God loved (agape) the world in such a way that He sent His beloved (agape) Son, made His beloved Son to be sin (2 Cor. 5:21) and turned His wrath and hatred against sin and the sinner in the Person of His Son, in order to save unbelieving sinners, so that unbelieving sinners might believe in the Son and be rescued from God’s wrath.
Of course, all sinners being, by nature, dead in sin, no sinner has the ability even to believe in the Son, and so, in a special demonstration of His love for sinners, God has given us the gift of faith in Christ, who is our only refuge from God’s hatred and wrath, and has made us alive together with Christ (Eph. 2:1,4-5).
Those who do not believe in the Son remain under God’s wrath and hatred (Jn. 3:36), and yet, while their time of grace lasts, God’s love is still extended to them that they may repent and believe.
Those who do believe in the Son are hated by God as sinners, but are sheltered by God from His own wrath and hatred through the righteousness of faith, and there, as we look to Christ for refuge, we are both loved (agape) by the Father (1 Jn. 3:1) and loved (philos) by the Father (Jn. 16:27), so that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
Simul iustus et peccator. Righteous and sinner at the same time.
Does this all sound illogical? In a way, it’s supposed to. This is how God shatters the wisdom of the wise. As Luther says, “Here we are in an altogether different world—a world that is outside reason…Here we are in a divine theology, where we hear the Gospel that Christ died for us and that when we believe this we are reckoned as righteous, even though sins, and great ones at that, still remain in us” (AE:26:234).
Short and sweet bits of wisdom like “God hates the sin, but loves the sinner” are handy. But God does not fit in a sound bite.
I’ve attempted here a reaction to the sound bite, but Luther reacted to it long before it existed, at least in English. I could have just quoted him for the entire post, but I didn’t want to appear lazy.
This is also how Christ defines the righteousness of faith in the Gospel of John. He says (John 16:27): “The Father Himself loves you. Why does He love you? Not because you were Pharisees, irreproachable in the righteousness of the Law, circumcised, doing good works, fasting, etc. But it is because ‘I chose you out of the world’ (John 15:19). And you have not done anything except that ‘you have loved Me and have believed that I came from the Father.’ This object, this ‘I’ sent from the Father into the world, this pleased you. And because you have taken hold of this object, the Father loves you, and you please Him.” Nevertheless, in another passage He calls them evil and tells them to ask for the forgiveness of sins. These two things are diametrically opposed: that a Christian is righteous and beloved by God, and yet that he is a sinner at the same time. For God cannot deny His own nature. That is, He cannot avoid hating sin and sinners; and He does so by necessity, for otherwise He would be unjust and would love sin. Then how can these two contradictory things both be true at the same time, that I am a sinner and deserve divine wrath and hate, and that the Father loves me? Here nothing can intervene except Christ the Mediator. “The Father,” He says, “loves you, not because you are deserving of love, but because you have loved Me and have believed that I came from the Father” (John 16:27).
Thus a Christian remains in pure humility. He really and truly feels that there is sin in him and that on this account he is worthy of wrath, the judgment of God, and eternal death. Thus he is humbled in this life. Yet at the same time he remains in a pure and holy pride, by which he turns to Christ. Through Him he strengthens himself against this feeling of divine wrath and judgment; and he believes that he is loved by the Father, not for his own sake but for the sake of Christ, the Beloved (AE:26:235).