By Jonathan Wong on 11 May 2016
“Love the sinner, hate the sin” is a phrase that has been tossed about so often, that many people think it is a biblical quotation. Using the search feature on my bible software with 16 different versions of the Bible turned up: “There were no results for this search.” A search of the internet pointed to a possibility that it may have been a paraphrase of St Augustine of Hippo who said, Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum, or “With love for mankind and hatred of sins.” So why do we as Christians use this phrase so often?
It may be because the sentiment it expresses is one found in Scripture. Paul reminds Timothy that, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” (1 Timothy 1:15) We know that Jesus certainly went out of his way to reach the lost, and became known as a “friend of tax collectors and sinners.” (Luke 7:34) And of course we have that famous story of the woman caught in adultery. As we all know, the story ends with him saying to this poor disgraced person, “Neither do I condemn you… Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:11)
However, in my experience, as good and biblical as this phrase sounds, it is for all intents and purposes a human impossibility. As fallen, sinful creatures, we do neither well. Our “love” is incomplete at best, or hypocritical at its worst. And our “hate” is qualified. The sin we “hate” is only that which is not our own. More importantly, despite our best efforts we fail to distinguish that fine line between the “sin” and the “sinner.”
I have never once heard a person say with great conviction, “That pastor really hates my sin, but I am convinced that he absolutely loves me!” Instead, what I have come across many times are people who have been so battered and bruised by other Christians, by their callous judgement and angry rhetoric, that they despaired of ever finding healing in the church. I am reminded of the story in Philip Yancey’s book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? about a man who is counselling a desperate prostitute. He advises her to go to the neighbourhood church to find help. She replies, “Church! Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”
So what are we to do? In my opinion, the greater problem we have in the church (or our tradition) right now is that we are far too Pharisaical in tone, and not sufficiently loving to sinners. How can we change that? Do we even want to? Don’t get me wrong. We must never deny the reality of sin in the life of the person. But most (if not all!) who come to us are “sick” people, in need of healing. What we must not do is turn them away, just because they are unwell. After all, what kind of hospital would we be if we only allowed healthy people to enter?
Even more important though is how we see ourselves. We think that we are the health care workers who staff the hospital. In reality we are ourselves patients who are in various stages of recovery and in desperate need of healing too! It is so easy for us to see “them” as sinners, ignoring our own condition. That is why Jesus was insistent that we deal with the log in our eyes, and not obsess over the speck in the eye of another (Luke 6:41). What we are called to be are loving sinners who love fellow sinners. And together we look to Dr. Jesus (Mark 2:17), the only one who can cure our sin!