Hate the Sin and Love the Sinner: Evangelism and Holiness in Dialogue

by Dustin Walters

You have probably heard the phrase “Hate the sin and love the sinner.” Like me, perhaps you have used this phrase at some point. In this blog post, I will reflect on what this phrase means and will engage with the implications of this phrase on evangelism. This phrase highlights the problems that result from a mere “bumper sticker theology” and compel us to become more cautious about the kinds of things we say even in casual conversation. There are two aspects of the phrase under consideration.

Two Key Aspects of the Phrase

Hate the Sin: A Concern for Holiness

The first part of the phrase articulates a commitment to holiness. Scripture does say that without holiness, no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14) We know that the gospel is Good News because Christ imputes or credits his righteousness to the believer through faith. We know that our righteousness is not in us but only in Christ. We also affirm the importance of believers pursuing holiness. In his work, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Donald Whitney writes that the spiritual disciplines have the end goal of godliness in mind. Holiness matters to God and it should matter to the believer.

When people say “hate the sin,” they are expressing a commitment to holiness. That kind of commitment is becoming rarer in our increasingly secular culture and is admittedly admirable. The phrase hate the sin is generally used against more blatant forms of sin such as homosexuality or abortion but it can be applied to any kind of sin. As God’s people grow in holiness, they ought to also develop an increased appetite for the things of God. The desires of the flesh become more distasteful as one grows in the sanctification process.

One value for theological conservatives is the preservation of that which best promotes human flourishing. I encountered this understanding of conservatism in the work by Roger Scruton entitled Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition. A commitment to purity or holiness aligns with Scruton’s understanding of conservatism.

As Christians seek to renew culture by pointing toward God’s moral standard, it is imperative not to separate grace and truth. Sin must be confronted, but only with humility and compassion toward those who are either unregenerate or who are not growing spiritually at the rate we think they should. We must stand on the truth of God’s word in gracious and winsome ways. (There are far too many examples of Christians attempting to invoke God’s moral standard without the love of Christ!)

I’m sure you can think of several examples of how Christ’s name has been maligned rather than honored because the truth of holiness has been separated from the grace of holiness. May King Jesus forgive us and may our neighbors forgive us for saying what we’re against more vocally than expressing what we stand FOR. That leads me to consider the second aspect of this troubling phrase.

Love the Sinner: A Concern for Evangelism

The first concern of the phrase in question is holiness. The second is love. God’s love and God’s holiness are equal attributes of the Triune God. Christians are called to love sinners just as Christ did. Romans 5:8, John 3:16-17, and 1 John 4:7-12 are some passages that describe Christ’s love. Here at Everyday Theology, we reference the late Mr. Leroy Forlines often. Forlines enjoyed the hymn “The Love of God” so much that he quoted part of the song in his seminal work The Quest for Truth.

The Christian who does not have a genuine love for other image-bearers, saved or not, is a contradiction. Jesus told his disciples that the world would know they belonged to him by the way they demonstrated love toward each other. Even though our culture is in love with love, or as one of my mentors says we live in a time when “neo-Romanticism is the norm and everyone is in love with love,” real followers of Jesus love others differently than they did before Christ. If one does not love, he or she has not encountered the God of all love who radically changes the way we view others (2 Corinthians 5:16).

No one can be an effective evangelist who does not adhere to the importance of “loving the sinner.” When the phrase is used in conjunction with the first clause (hate the sin), the hearer often focuses on the strong verb hate. It is similar to what happens when the coordinating conjunction but is used to join clauses together. This coordinating conjunction functionally negates whatever precedes the second clause. For this reason, the phrase in question should be abandoned altogether because the Christian evangelist does not have time to unpack a phrase like that and explain the implications of the various parts.

We can learn from Jesus’s example and love for others. There are countless examples of his evangelism motivated by love in the gospels. We should learn from his example. We need to share the gospel with people out of a deep love for Christ and for the image-bearer who does not yet know that he or she is an image-bearer either.

One caveat should be added about the way love is understood in relationship to evangelism. Love understood biblically does not tolerate sin, nor doe it overlook it. Biblical love addresses sin for what it is in a winsome way. Jesus’s interactions in John 4 and John 8 are powerful examples of his evangelism. He offered love to the sinner yet urged the sinner to “go and sin no more.” Love is not refusing to confront sin out of a desire for people to like us. Love gets involved in the brokenness of sinners. Love gets down in the sand like Jesus did. The contemporary idea of love detached from truth and accountability is unbiblical, yet we must recognize that unbelievers do not mean the same thing we do about love.

Perhaps the phrase attempts to wed together two key commitments for the Christian in personal evangelism: holiness and love. Those two commitments are biblical and should not be rejected. Even so, we need to refrain from using the phrase “Hate the sin and love the sinner” in our evangelism.

I would like to wrap this blog post up with five key reminders about our evangelistic approach.

Important Reminders

  1. We do not clean people up and present them blameless before the Father. Jesus does.
  2. We must have compassion for image bearers who have not yet experienced God’s transforming grace.
  3. We must prioritize relationships in evangelism so we have the relational capital required to lovingly confront sin. Jesus exemplified how we should approach our unbelieving friends and neighbors.
  4. Social media is not the environment to apply either of the major premises of this statement.
  5. We must not compromise on biblical truth yet we must never forget that we too once walked in disobedience and rebellion toward God. We need to remember that such were some of us and that we are not better than anyone else.

Conclusion

There are various approaches to evangelism. In a later post, I will reflect on the evangelistic techniques. Here, I have attempted to urge the reader to refrain from using the phrase “Hate the sin and love the sinner“. There are better ways to describe holiness and its relationship to evangelism in the pulpit and in ordinary conversation.

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