Hating Sin and the Sinner
Should we hate all sin?
In this editorial I would like to deal with the distinction between sin and the sinner, in particular the sinner who repents and turns away from sin. This distinction is necessary. If we do not maintain it, we can develop a wrong attitude. We are not allowed to accept sin. We are obliged by God's Word to reject all sin, and to do so always. However, must we also hate the sinner? Or should we love him? Is it not our calling to spread the love of God in Christ for sinners who are lost in their sins? Are we not to show them the way of salvation with our Christian word and attitude of love which is rooted in Christ? How are we to show ourselves as God's children in this matter? What does God do?
In the first place, the constant teaching of Scripture is that God hates all sin and that, therefore, we are to do the same. Only a few texts are needed as evidence. In Proverbs 8:13 it says,
"The fear of the LORD is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I [divine Wisdom] hate."
For evil a general word is used here which means all that is bad and wicked because it goes against God's holy will as revealed in His Word. Another text is Proverbs 6:16-19. Just as in the preceding one, the emphasis in this text also is on falsehood or on being unreliable to one's neighbor; that is, the falsehood of not seeking his well-being but his ruin; the falsehood of not wanting to help him but seeking to destroy him.
"There are six things which the LORD hates, seven which are an abomination to Him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and a man who sows discord among brothers."
Other texts are Deuteronomy 12:31 (God hates everything that is linked to idolatry; cf. also 16:22 and Jeremiah 44:4); Isaiah 61:8 (God hates robbery); Amos 5:21 (God hates Israel's feasts); Zechariah 8:17 (God hates falsehoods in many forms); Malachi 2:16 (God hates divorce). For the New Testament, I may refer to Revelation 2:6, "… you hate the (immoral) works of the Nicolatians, which I also hate."
This divine hatred against sin is a total dislike of and a deep aversion to and rejection of everything that is evil, rebellion, disregard for Him and His word and law. God hates the sins of idolatry, of immorality, of falsehood because they are the opposite of what He is and does. It destroys and ruins life and belongs to the works of darkness. God's hatred against sin is often expressed with the word abomination. Sins are characterized as abominations, detestable things. So are the worship of idols and the immorality connected with it (Deuteronomy 18:12), sexual immorality (Deuteronomy 23:18), cheating and lying (Deuteronomy 25:16; Proverbs 11:1, Proverbs 12:22), to mention only these.
Connected with this aversion and hatred against sin is God's wrath and anger because of sin, and His judgments. It is therefore evident that God hates all sin and that God's children have to do the same.
Must we hate the sinners?
Now we come to the more difficult question. Must we also hate all sinners and do so always? We can again take our starting point in what Scripture reveals about what God does. In Psalms 5:5 it says about God, "Thou hatest all evildoers." See here also v.6,
"Thou destroyest those who speak lies. The LORD abhors bloodthirsty and deceitful men."
Another text is Psalms 11:5, "The LORD tests the righteous and the wicked, and His soul hates him that love violence."
Psalms 31:6 reads, "Thou hatest those who pay regard to vain idols."
The last text to be mentioned here is Hosea 11:15, "Every evil of theirs is in Gilgal."
Then follow the words, "There I began to hate them."
Gilgal was a place of idolatry and immorality. Because of those sins God began to hate the people of Israel, of which He first had declared that it was His beloved and precious own possession (Deuteronomy 7:6). In Proverbs 6:16-19, mentioned above as proof that God hates all evil, the hatred against the doers of the evil is, in fact, expressed also. This is evident from the formulation. In the last part a transition is made from the sin or sinful disposition to the sinner: from "haughty eyes" to "a false witness" and "a man who sows discord among brothers." We see here that sin and sinner cannot really be separated from one another. The "haughty eyes" reveal a haughty, arrogant person.
We can conclude that there are a number of places in the Old Testament where it expressly says that God hates sinners, specifically those living in sins of idolatry, immorality and falsehood, dishonesty. Particularly the Hosean text shows that wicked Israelite evildoers are hated by God. This does not deny that God also hates sinners outside of the circle of the covenant. They are under His wrath too. God is the judge of all mankind. In the texts that speak of God's hatred this hatred is closely linked with His wrath and judgment. Nevertheless, when Scripture speaks of God hating sinners, these sinners show more the picture of people who want to sin and act wickedly toward God and their neighbor, than that of people who are lost and suffering under their sin and misery. Scripture makes this distinction between arrogant, false, proud, ungodly people and the lost that are driven through circumstances or oppression by others into acts or even a life of sin. It is the distinction between sinning with raised fist and sinning in great need and misery, as one who is lost.
The New Testament does not use the verb to hate to express God's anger toward "workers of evil." However, just as the Old, it does speak about God's wrath and judgment against them. There are many text references. Christ speaks about sin against the Holy Spirit which will not be forgiven (Matthew 12:32). In Luke 16:15 the Lord warns that "what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God." And "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble" James 4:6, cf. Proverbs 3:34 and 1 Peter 5:5). In the same line is also 1 Corinthians 6:9,10, where Paul warns that "the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God." Paul then mentions a whole list of wicked deeds of people living in sin contrary to God's holy commandments. Mention should be made here also of Christ's "Woe" to the Galilean cities (Matthew 11:20-24) and to the Pharisees and Scribes (Matthew 23).
One other text in the New Testament should be noted in which we read about God's hate. It is a quotation from Malachi 1:3. The Lord says here, "I have loved Jacob but I have hated Esau." It shows that God's love is His unmerited choosing love, His electing good pleasure. God's hating is His rejecting, His passing by. Paul quotes this word in Romans 9:13 in connection with his teaching about God's gracious electing good pleasure in Christ as the ground for salvation. This text shows the depth of God's love and of His hatred. The other texts express God's hatred against sin and sinner as this occurs in the concrete reality of the history of the covenant when people live in sin contrary to God's holy will and harden themselves in it.
Since Scripture speaks about God hating sin and those living in it, are there also texts that speak about God's children hating sinners? Psalms 139:21 ff. comes to mind here, where David, guided by the Holy Spirit(!) says, "Do I not hate them that hate Thee, O LORD? … I hate them with perfect hatred." It is clear that the reason for David's hating these "men of blood" is that they hate God who is such a marvelously good God for His people. In this instance, too, we read of open, hardened rebellion against God. This is not the sinning of people who feel lost in their misery. David's hatred is a holy hatred in anger against rebellious apostasy from the living God. Hatred, also here, is a total dislike for and a deep aversion to the contempt which such people show for God and God's will. This same anger can be heard in Christ's "woe" to the self-righteous Jewish leaders. Anger against apostasy and contempt for the Word of God cannot be separated from the persons who commit the apostasy. Peter and Jude fulminate against destructive false prophets that come up in the church (2 Peter 2 and Jude). Paul pronounces a curse upon Judaist false teachers who threaten to destroy the churches (Galatians 1:8).
Our conclusion can be that Scripture speaks not only about God's hatred against sin and the sinner living in sin, but also that of God's child who loves the LORD and therefore also hates sin and the sinner who lives in open hatred against God and who shows this in his rebellious rejection of God's will. Nevertheless, we have to keep in mind that Scripture in the Old Testament does not often speak about God hating wicked, hardened sinners, and there is only one place (Psalms 1:39) where a child of God, through the Holy Spirit, speaks of a holy hatred against ungodly, wicked sinners. The emphasis is on the command to love and do well even to one's enemies. This counts even more so for the New Testament.
Love for lost sinners
Scripture speaks consistently about God's love for sinners, specifically for those who are lost in their sins. In John 3:16 it says,
"God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, in order that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life."
The Old Testament is full of this love. And so is the New. God's Son was anointed with the Holy Spirit to preach good news to the poor, to heal and free people who are suffering because of sin and its consequences. Christ proclaimed restoration of life through the forgiving grace of God. In word and deed He showed God's love for sinners. He came to them. He received them. He saved them. It was His love for lost sheep. But He also spoke His "woe" when they refused this grace.
Let us take, as illustration of this love, Luke 7:36-50. Christ was invited to have dinner in the house of Simon, a Pharisee. When He was sitting at the table, a woman came in. Standing behind the Lord, she made His feet wet with her tears, wiped them off with her hair, and kissed them. Then she anointed them with an expensive ointment.
Simon's reaction was negative, both toward Christ and toward the woman. He rejected Christ by stating, "If this man were a prophet, He would have known what kind of woman she is." He condemned the woman by marking her as "a sinner." Simon kept his distance from this woman and did not want to be associated with her, sinner that she was. He also distanced himself from the Lord because of Christ's acceptance of and association with the woman.
In response Christ told a little story of a creditor and two debtors. The one owed him an amount equal to the wages of five hundred days (almost a year and a half); the other, the wages of fifty days (about a month and a half). Both were unable to pay back. Both were forgiven their debt. Christ asked which of the two would love the man more. Simon reluctantly replied that it was the one to whom the greater debt was forgiven. Christ applied Simon's answer to Simon himself and to the woman. Simon had invited Him, let us assume, as a deed of love. But he had not provided a little water for Christ to wash the street dust from His feet. The woman washed His feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. Simon did not welcome Christ with a kiss on the cheek. The woman did not cease to kiss His feet. Simon did not give a bit of oil for Christ's face as refreshment. The woman poured expensive ointment over His feet. It was clear who loved Christ the most.
The fact that she came to Christ illustrates that she repented from her sins and that this was the result of His preaching of the gospel of forgiving grace for sinners. Her tears are an indication that she was a sinner who was lost in her sins and misery. Reasoning back from the result to the cause. Christ said to Simon that because of the great love which she showed, her many sins are forgiven, while he who has little love also has little forgiveness. Turning to the woman He said, "Your sins are forgiven." And He added, "Your faith has saved you." It was faith in Christ and in His message of God's mercy for sinners lost in their sins. Through her faith she received the restoration of her life. And she became an instrument for Christ's teaching to Simon. Simon was also called to apply Christ's word to himself, to acknowledge his sins, and to repent from them. Christ addressed him in order that he might see himself as a lost sinner, caught in the grip of sin. Simon did not show much love because he thought he was not guilty of many sins as the woman was in his view. He did not realize that he himself failed badly and that his very attitude of lack of love toward Christ and toward the woman made him terribly guilty before God.
In the words of Christ to both Simon and the woman we see His love. Not only has the woman received His love in the assurance of forgiveness in the way of her faith. Also Simon receives it in the warning to acknowledge also his sins, his failure, now, and to receive God's grace for repentant sinners through Christ Jesus.
This love for sinners who are lost in their sins, sinners like the woman and like Simon, should characterize also those who call themselves after Christ, children of God. There should be anger and hatred against sin, also against the sinner insofar as he lives in rebellion against God's holy will. At the same time there should be love and compassion for the sinner as he is lost in his sin. This compassion must be shown in visible efforts of willingness to help, in acts of caring love, in calling to repentance and turning away from sin, and in leading lost ones on the way of the Lord.
It is evident, then, that we cannot speak here with one word. We have to speak with two words. For a Christian, hatred against sin and the sinner, as far as he lives in sin against God, goes together with compassion and love and help for the same sinner. A Christian acknowledges that he is a fellow sinner, just as one lost in his sins. Christ says that we must show love to our enemies.
This love is to be shown so very much to those who were lost in sin, who went through great depths of misery, and who were found by the Lord and led out of their misery to Him as their Savior. Sinners, lost but found by the Lord, with many remaining scars from the wounds, need His continued compassion and help. This compassion and loving help should also come to them through their brothers and sisters in the church. It is horrible that those who should be helping brothers and sisters sometimes present a cold shoulder of rejection, as Simon did to the woman. He had no compassion. Therefore, he was not able to realize that she was freed from the guilt and the powers of sin, while he himself continued in the sinful blindness of impenitence and a lack of love. She was in the light; he was still in the darkness.
The conclusion: let us hate all sin and, in holiness, also the sinner who opposes God in willful disobedience, with a holy hatred or anger, in as far as he hardens himself in what is abominable, but let us show Christian compassion and love toward the sinner in as far as he is lost in sin. Let us spread the loving care of Christ. There are so many who need that help so much because they are lost in the deep misery of sin or are still suffering under the consequences of the misery out of which the Lord freed them.