Have you ever heard a pastor, Bible teacher, or fellow believer say with great conviction: “The Bible says, Hate the sin but love the sinner?” Sorry to tell you, but that is not in the Bible. In fact, most scholars trace it back to letter written in 423 AD by Augustine of Hippo to the Nuns of a monastery which contains the line: “With love for the person and hatred for the sin.”1
In fact, this phrase was made popular by none other than Mohandas Gandhi, the famous leader of the nonviolent rebellion against British rule in India, in his 1929 autobiography. Since then it has been used by many who ask for tolerance as they espouse their own points of view. The closest thing we can find to this that Jesus said may be His words in Matthew 5:44, “Love your enemies. Pray for those who treat you badly.” But this is a difficult comparison since what your opponent may be doing to oppose you cannot be properly labeled as sin, thus making him or her a sinner.
When we look at what others are doing, of which we do not approve, it is somewhat judgmental to automatically call it sin. When we do so, we are misusing the word sin by not applying it to what the Bible calls sin. Listen to how Pastor A. J. Thomas explains it: “Sin doesn’t mean ‘bad’ or ‘bad things.’ In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word is chatta’t and it means, ‘separation.’ In the New Testament, the Greek word hamartia, is translated ‘sin.’ It’s a term from archery that literally means ‘to miss the mark.’ It’s when you let the arrow go and it fails to hit the target. So sin is both a condition – one of separation from God, and a missing of the mark – aiming our lives away from God.”2
Taken in that sense, to hate the sin but love the sinner would be to criticize the act but condone the action. It would almost be like saying to someone, I’ll still love you even if you commit murder, just don’t do it with a gun. This would also ignore the fact that using the gun is what would made the person a murderer, so it’s not the gun’s fault. So how can we approve of one thing and disapprove of the other when both are bad?
Now, how do we solve this conundrum? Do we either hate both act and actor or do we love both? It seems that King David had this same choice, so he decided: “Lord, I hate those who hate You. I hate those who are against You.”3 So let’s say that if your child, spouse, neighbor or friend does something that is against the law or accepted moral values, would it be permissible for you to tell them, “I hate what you did and I hate you for doing it. But my love for you is strong enough for me to pay the price for what you did and accept the prescribed punishment?”
If so, you would be subscribing to the same action that Peter speaks about when he wrote: “Christ carried our sins in His body on the cross. He did this so that we would stop living for sin and live for what is right.”4 Then the same thing that caused you to love Christ once you understood how much He loved you, might make it possible to believe that your child, spouse, neighbor or friend would feel the same way about you.
Of course, this may go against everything you’ve been taught and believe. So let’s lessen the burden. First of all, hate the sin but love the sinner is not written that way in the Bible. Second, go with what is written there: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and most important command. And the second command is like the first: ‘Love your neighbor the same as you love yourself.’ All of the law and the writings of the prophets take their meaning from these two commands.” – Dr. Robert R. Seyda
1 Letter 211:11
2 Pastor of Morehead United Methodist Church in Greensboro, N.C.
3 Psalm 139:20
4 1 Peter 2:24