In many evangelical circles, it is common to encourage Christians to “love the sinner, hate the sin.”
And in many other adjacent evangelical circles, it is common to denounce this aphorism as unbiblical or even ungodly. To these critics, hating sin while loving the sinner is a misrepresentation of the kind of love God offers.
After all, Psalm 5:4-6 says of God, “For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.”
Similarly, Psalm 11:5 says, “The Lord tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.”
That seems to settle it: God hates the sin, and he hates the sinner. I looked up the Hebrew words translated above as “hate” and “abhor,” and when you survey how they are used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, they consistently convey the ideas of hatred, detestation, abhorrence, and contempt.
These psalms make it clear that God opposes evildoers, who will ultimately face his judgment for their wickedness and injustice. And anyone who sins is an evildoer, ipso facto God hates sinners—including me, you, and your gay neighbor.
Thus, we should never tell unbelievers that God loves them, since he actually hates them.
Based on these proof texts, that seems to make sense. But when looking at the gospel of John, seeing Christ’s mission as being motivated by his love for the people he supposedly hates seems inescapable.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
God loved the world.
Throughout John’s gospel account, Jesus characterizes “the world” as a place of darkness (e.g., John 3:19) and as hating him and his disciples (e.g., John 15:18). In other words, “the world” represents the evildoers who stand opposed to God’s righteousness and justice.
And yet, Jesus said that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). Later, he later prayed about his disciples, saying, “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” that they might carry out the mission of saving the world through the gospel (John 17:18).
John expounds upon God’s love for sinful people in his first epistle, arguing that it is the reason we should also love sinful people: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
The apostle Paul describes God’s love for sinners this way: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4-5). Elsewhere Paul says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Notice that this love is given before a person has turned to God in faith.
And when we look at the account of Jesus’ ministry, he spent the lion’s share of his time hanging out with “sinners” and teaching them about the Kingdom of God (e.g., Matthew 9:10-13).
So there’s something of a tension here. If I am hated by God on account of my sin (as the Psalms would seem to indicate), how is it that I am also loved by God enough that he would send his Son that I might have eternal life?
I’ve often heard it described this way: God the Father feels nothing but wrath and contempt for me. Were it not for Christ, he would eternally condemn me. But because my “life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3) by virtue of my incorporation to Jesus’ death and resurrection (Romans 6:4-5), when God the Father looks at me, he doesn’t see me. All he sees is the righteousness of Christ. And because God the Father sees only Christ, he loves me.
But if we extend the logic of that metaphor, that would mean that God doesn’t actually love me. Instead, he only loves the covering Christ has given me. And maybe that’s the point the preachers who use this illustration are trying to convey—that God not only hates the sin but the sinner also.
Fair enough. I just don’t think that’s an accurate representation of who God is. I don’t think there is a disagreement of opinion about humanity between God the Father and God the Son. I don’t think the Father hates us while the Son loves us.
After all, Jesus said it himself, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). This is basic trinitarian theology: God is one essence in three persons. He is three persons (Father, Son, Spirit), but he is one essential God—meaning that he literally can’t disagree with himself.
So it isn’t that Jesus, who loves us, saves us from God the Father, who hates us, so that he can stand to be around us. Both the Father and Son loved us enough that the Father was willing to send the Son and the Son was willing to lay down his life that death (which is the consequence of sin) might be conquered. And through the work of God the Holy Spirit, our hearts are opened up to the possibility that Jesus is real, he is alive, and he is King.
As Paul puts it, “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (Romans 2:4).
What happens when we are saved from our sin isn’t so much that God stops hating us—it’s that we stop hating God. He doesn’t change in his disposition towards us. He transforms the way we see him by the power of his steadfast love.
And by being united to Christ through his death and resurrection, we gain life—not as something that God gives to us, but as a byproduct of being united to the one who is life and love itself.
But what of those verses in Psalms? How do we square this theology of God’s love for sinners with the fact that the text clearly says that God hates and abhors all evildoers?
One thing we have to bear in mind is that the Psalms are poetry and should be interpreted as such. In Psalms 5 and 11, what we see is a common poetic pattern of contrasting one thing with another. The psalmists describe how God loves and upholds “the righteous” but hates and detests “the wicked.”
In the specific context of these two psalms, “the wicked” or “the evildoer” is described as someone who is “deceitful” and “speaks lies,” and who is “bloodthirsty” and “loves violence.” In other words, they are people who are willfully defrauding or attacking “the righteous.”
In these songs, the comfort to God’s people, who are “the righteous,” is that God stands opposed to those who would harm them with their violence and lies. In a world marked by violence and injustice, these psalms remind God’s people that God hates the evils perpetrated against them as much as they do.
Nevertheless, given the panoply of didactic exposition of God’s love for sinners found in the New Testament, interpreting these small poetic passages as conveying totalizing hatred for all of sinful humanity is something of a wooden reading of the text.
That isn’t to say that God won’t render final judgment to those who ultimately refuse to let go of their hatred of him. After all, there can be no eternal shalom for the people of God if the enemies of God are never ultimately stopped from perpetrating sinful acts that harm others. And the only two ways for evildoers to be stopped is for them to be changed by God’s love or removed by God’s justice.
But the fact remains that between now and the final judgment day, Jesus has instructed us, without exception, to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). Do we really think that God would exempt himself from this fundamental Christian teaching?