The following post is a bit of a follow-up to our discussion about the wrath of God.
Which comes first, loving the sinner or hating the sin?
For as long as I can remember I have heard Christian folks say that we should “love the sinner and hate the sin.” But what exactly does that mean? I’ve often wondered whether it isn’t just a cloak people use to cover a judgmental attitude with pious-sounding words. We look at someone, see their sin, judge them (silently or not), and then say (aloud or to ourselves), ”What a mess he is! I guess we have to love him though – we’re told to love the sinner and hate the sin!” In other words, we’re bothered by the sin first, and we’re left to figure out how to love this person despite their annoying sinfulness.
For anyone who has been grasped by the good news of Jesus Christ, there’s something terribly backward about this. We shouldn’t start with a negative judgment, and only then try to smuggle in some sort of good will for this person. The gospel moves in the opposite direction: God’s love comes first (“God demonstrates his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” Romans 5:8), and his wrath against sin comes out of his love. Because God loves us, he hates anything that threatens to hurt us or hold us back from true life. Sin pulls us away from the joyous life and relationship God holds out to us. God’s love for us reaches such depths that he is deeply angered by anything that would hurt the ones he loves.
When the rich young man asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus began to question him about his life. The man was in hard shape, holding onto the obedience he had practiced since childhood, but also holding onto his wealth. In the midst of this we don’t read that Jesus was disgusted by the man and had to figure out a way to love the sinner and hate the sin. Before the man even knew his own problem, “Jesus looked at him and loved him” (Mark 10:21). Jesus’ love motivates him to call the man to change his life. The man won’t change, and walks away sad. And we can imagine that Jesus who loved him was sad too.
We don’t have the right to hate anyone’s sin unless we love them first. Otherwise our “hatred of their sin” is really just our annoyance that they don’t see things our way—it might even be that we “hate the sinner” after all.
As Christians, we are called to love the neighbours (who are all sinners) who cross our paths, just as God loves them. If we do that, then just as a parent’s deep love for their child leads them to hate the drugs that hold them in so tight a grip, we will only hate their sin because it’s tearing down these people we love so deeply.
Love comes first.