Does God Hate the Sin but Love the Sinner?
Whenever there is discussion about today’s hot-button moral issues, a familiar refrain is heard on the lips of Christians: God hates the sin, but He loves the sinner.
For instance, on the issue of homosexuality, we might be drawn into responding defensively to those who accuse the Christian church of being homophobic or bigoted. The accusation quickly flies: “I thought Christians were supposed to accept everyone in love, and not judge them. Isn’t that what Jesus did, after all?”
And in response, the tidy answer is often heard: “God hates the sin, but He loves the sinner.”[i] Maybe you’ve said it yourself. Obviously, the thinking is that if this is the principle by which God views homosexuality and homosexuals, then certainly the church should do the same, and take his view of such things.
This conveniently simple and very memorable principle seems at once to have the tone of being correct: “Of course God doesn’t hate sinners – that’s why He gave his Son to die for them.” Some have even wondered if this little saying could be found hidden somewhere in the Scriptures.
There is in fact some truth to this saying. We know from Scripture that God is antithetically opposed to all sin. For instance, we hear God saying, “I hate robbery and iniquity” (Isa 61:8); and, “I hate divorce” (Mal 2:16). Proverbs 6:16-19 even lists six things that the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to him: “Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood,” and so on. It’s in his very character that God hates sin, for “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).
And again, who could ever dispute that God loves sinners? The well-known John 3:16 is a shining summary of this Scriptural truth. We also know that our gracious God wants no sinner to die, but that everyone should come to repentance (2 Pet 3:9).
Clarity from Scripture
As we try to evaluate this saying then, Scripture does tell us that God views sin and those who commit sin in a different way. In this sense, the saying has a small element of truth to it. But we must quickly say more. For not only is this saying not found in the Bible, it also suggests something that is contrary to the Bible’s teaching. We know from the Bible that God does hate the sinner. His hatred of sin is so perfect that He simply cannot show love to those who insist on rejecting his ways.
Especially the Psalms clearly illustrate that God’s wrath rests on the sinner. Setting the tone for the whole Psalter, we read in Psalm 1:5, “The wicked will not stand in the judgment.” And this thought is continued in Psalm 5, where it is said of God, “The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong” (v. 5).
Psalm 11 is even more striking in its depiction of God’s hatred:
The LORD examines the righteous, but the wicked and those who love violence his soul hates. On the wicked he will rain fiery coals and burning sulfur; a scorching wind will be their lot” (vv 5-6).
Here there can be no airbrushing away of God’s fierce hatred for sin and for sinners alike. He hates them!
The New Testament speaks similarly. Out of his hatred for sin, God shows fury against it. As Paul tells us, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men” (Rom 1:18). Moreover, God has righteous anger for the unrepentant sinner as well: “Whoever rejects the Son will not see life,” Jesus says, “for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36).
While we cannot dispute that God has steadfast love for sinners, we also cannot say that God has only love for sinners. The Scriptures are clear that He also has wrath for the wicked, and hatred for those who do not do his will.
A Contradiction to Our Minds
The problem that we have in seeing the error of this cliché is that it is so very hard for us to reconcile God’s hatred and God’s love. Scripture clearly speaks of God having both, yet in our minds, hatred and love for the same object are mutually exclusive.
As a simple example, if I said to you, “I love avocado, but I hate eating it,” you would conclude that I was in contradiction with myself, and seriously confused. I can’t have it both ways! So the saying “God hates the sin, but loves the sinner” sounds correct because it puts God’s love and God’s hatred into separate and tidy compartments, without denying either of them.
But because of the greatness of God’s perfections, He can express both love and hatred for the same object, and He can do so without contradiction. That is, God can be justly wrathful against fallen man. And at the same time, God can be filled with gracious love for fallen man. Love and hatred exist in God, side by side.
We have to acknowledge our human limitations when we search for a solution to this tension in God. As with some other sticky theological “problems,” here we can only humbly repeat what Scripture says, as we have done above. And in this case we can look to the cross for the marvelous way in which this love and hatred of God are worked out.
For it was at the cross that God showed the great depth of his just hatred for sin. He showed this hatred in cutting off his own Son (Matt 27:46), and in laying on Him the eternal curse that we deserved for our sin (Gal 3:13).
But this intense wrath of God against Jesus shows us – at the very same time – the great depths of God’s love for sinners. The Father, while He was full of righteous wrath against both sin and sinners, could yet love mankind so much that He chose to reject his Son in our place. Through his wrath against his Son on the cross, the Father accepts back into loving fellowship all those who are united by faith to Him.
A tidy cliché quickly uttered won’t help the Christian church in dealing with members who might struggle with homosexuality. Nor will it help us in properly responding to those who attack the church for how we (allegedly) hate and mistreat homosexuals. Rather, we need to respond with the clear words that Scripture gives us.
That is, we must say that if sinners don’t repent, God’s wrath remains against them. Even we as believers are sinners, and therefore by ourselves we all stand as “hated by God.” But if we repent from our sins and believe in Christ, God gives us abundant love, and He forgives us completely.
We said earlier that the accusation of being judgmental is often thrown at Christians today. And it is true, are we not being judgmental of those who are homosexual when we call them names, or share crude jokes about them? We might try to excuse our unchristian words by saying that they deserve it because they’re such horrible sinners, or because homosexual sin is somehow more disgusting than anything that we do against God’s law. But we shouldn’t apply a different standard of judgment to others than we apply to ourselves (Matt 7:1-5). Let’s humbly remember that we are all contemptible sinners, and that all of us are called to repent every day from our disobedience.
We should not be judgmental of homosexuals or of any other sinners, but we must judge, as Scripture tells us to. In the humility that comes from receiving undeserved mercy ourselves, we are called to name sin as sin. And as we have opportunity, we must not be shy in calling others to repentance. Pointing out sin, then we can also point out the path of forgiveness which has been opened through the cross.
Let the church never give a false sense of security to those around her by repeating as gospel truth, “God hates your sin, but God loves you.”
Rather, let’s say, “God hates your sin, and He hates it so much that He gave his own Son to die for it. He gave his Son, so that if you repent and put your faith in Him, you’ll be saved from everlasting death.”
[i] On this saying and a helpful response to it, see D.A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2000), pp. 68-69.