“Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin.” Jesus didn’t say that. Brad Jersak

“Love the sinner, hate the sin.” 

Jesus never said that. We’re now at a place where the once-popular Christian trope has come into disfavor. Something about it just didn’t ring true. It kind of seemed true but somehow, felt off.

First, Jesus never said it. The closest primary source we have is Gandhi, who said, “Hate the sin and not the sinner.” Not bad for the political and religious climate in which he led a major peace movement. Given his daily reading of and obedience to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, we could even call him a Christ-following Hindu—a far cry from India’s current context.

My minimal response is three-fold:

The phrase is employed in the service of exclusion.

It’s not dissimilar to saying, “We’ll love you BUT…” or “We’ll love you WHEN…” or most explicitly, “We don’t love you as you are. We love our idea of who you should be.” Or “We love you and welcome you … to the outer court. Welcome to our game (we love you) but no, you can’t play. We’ve identified the disqualifying sins and sorry (we love you) but you’re sidelined. You’re quarantined from the inner circle because you’re still a carrier of the pandemic sin virus.” This is just as true within both conservative purity-culture and progressivist cancel-culture. Neither conceives of a truly inclusive gospel. Someone always has to be “out.” David Hayward (@NakedPastor) visualizes the reality this way:

For those, like me, who’ve lived on the privileged inside for a lifetime, we have no idea what it feels like to ask ourselves every time we walk into a room (restaurant, church service, home) whether we’ll be asked to leave or welcome to stay quiet. Is what I do or who I am considered sin here? Nothing matters more right now when it comes to exclusion than the revival of a true and visceral empathy. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” fails to reach the register of cruciform empathy and therefore, does not align with the Jesus Way gospel.

Love the Sinner?

Seems noble. After all, we do have this beautiful Gospel text from Mark 2:

15 While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.16 When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

17 On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

It’s obvious here that Jesus is not applying these labels literally. He clearly did not regard the Pharisees and rabbis as “righteous.” It’s just as unlikely that he regarded a slice of the socio-religious strata as “sinners.” He’s co-opting the us-them/in-out labels of self-righteous religiosity in order to subvert or erase them. In fact, it’s harsher than that: he makes inclusion contingent on identifying with the marginalized! The “righteous” have no place in the Great Physician’s hospital. Happily, if they drop their haughty charade, even the in-crowd will not be driven out.

Here’s the good news. Jesus will say elsewhere, “I will never send away anyone who comes to me” (John 6:37).

So, please, “sinner” in this text should be read with scare-quotes. It’s not an identity and should never be applied to any other person. In A More Christlike Way, I shared how I am no longer triggered by using it of myself because I know my identity in Christ as a son. For me, it’s simply an admission of my daily need for God’s kindness and mercy. It’s my acceptance of the human condition and Christ’s love for me in it, just as I am. And it’s my rejection of self-righteous assumptions and entitlements that I would otherwise harness in contempt of the excluded other. With Paul, I can adopt the phrase “chief of sinners,” without shame or an identity crisis … and ONLY for myself.

As for others, “Love the sinner”? NO. The Bible never speaks of that directly. BETTER: Jesus says, Love your neighbor; love your brother and sister; love your enemy. In short, Love Everyone. Without distinction. While love the sinner does invite us to love those we see as sinners, what it fails to do is heal our eyes from seeing them that way. They are children of God. They are beloved. They are included. They are those for whom Christ died. They are those he reconciled to himself at the Cross. Lord, heal our eyes from seeing others through that lens, square-quotes or not!

Hate the Sin?

I do hate sin. I hate what it does to me and what it does to others through me. I hate what sin does in our world. I hate war. I hate rape. I hate murder. I hate adultery. I hate greed. I hate abuse. I hate neglect. I hate hypocrisy. I hate cowardice. I hate bigotry. I’m sure God does, too. He hates to see how our collective and personal self-harm rob us of fulness of life.

But is that the gospel? No. With God’s arrival in Christ, we know that his orientation to “sinners” was hospitality expressed as open table fellowship, which becomes his chief metaphor for Abba’s invitation to the kingdom. It’s a banquet and, oddly / wonderfully, Christ is the fatted calf slain for dinner.

Instead of “hating the sin,” Christ forgives and heals the sin. Forgiving our sin is a “done deal.” It is finished, right? Not “You will be forgiven if…” but rather, “You were forgiven because…” While its fair to speak of how we experience forgiveness now or forgive others now, both are simply our active participation in a fait accompli, that beautiful French word meaning something that has already happened or been decided before those affected hear about it. So, we love the sinner everyone and hate forgive everyone, most of all because God has already forgiven them.

Less familiar is the idea that God “heals sin.” The conjunction of forgiveness and healing is common in Scripture but we often distinguish them so that forgiveness is for sin and healing is for disease. But Christ saw that “sin” is fundamentally a disease that requires healing. Back to the earlier story. He begins: “They that are whole have no need of a physician; but they that are sick. I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Luke v.31, 32).

What is the sickness of sin? Primarily self-will, the fatal turn described in the garden. It goes deeper than law-breaking to a deep suffering of the soul that can never be healed by condemnation and judgment. It needs a healing touch. So, for example,

  • “Return, O faithless sons; I will heal your faithlessness” (Jeremiah 3:22).
  • “I will heal their apostasy; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them” (Hosea 14:4).
  • “… confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:15).
  • “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Again, the forgiveness is already accomplished but God wants to get right into the roots of our disease so that we are healed or cleansed of all those impulses that drive us to self-harm and the compulsions that lead to harming others. As I’ve said so many times before, the meth addict is grateful that they’re forgiven for using harmful drugs … but they also want to be healed of the addiction and the wounds they seek to self-medicate. At some level, most addicts hate their addiction and who they’ve become. You cannot heal them by sowing more hatred. It simply doesn’t work.

So, here we are, ready to edit our pithy platitude. Not “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” but rather, “Love everyone, forgive and heal the sin.” Some have gone further and refuse to use the word “sin” because intrinsic to it is a long history of condemnation. We’ve forever confused it with misbehaving. But there’s no use denying human brokenness.

How about this, then: instead of focusing on sinful behavior, what if we saw past it to the suffering heart that is diseased with self-will. The heart. That’s the locus of what Jesus is forgiving and healing through his loving touch. Love heals. It’s more like, “Love, forgive and heal every heart.” 

Or wait… forgiving and healing: that’s God’s job. What’s our role? Following God and participating in what Christ is doing. I’m sure you can do better with the lingo, but what a beautiful way to live. The Jesus Way! By grace (not more self-will), become like him! Imitate him. So, here’s my last try for today, noting that this is not about them. It’s for us; it’s for everyone:

“God loves everyone. Christ forgives us and heals our hearts. Follow him.”

It may not be as catchy. But it’s certainly more true.

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