Loving the sinner, hating the sin is a phrase usually perceived as a Christian cop out. One that allows them not to endorse a behaviour/attitude/point of view but at the same time hold to Christian principles. Those who do not agree with Christian principles would call this phrase one of self righteousness, a subterfuge for Christians to hide behind while they judge people. Is this the case though?
A preliminary point to be made is this; the distinction between a person committing an act and the act itself is a very Biblical one. In fact, this is the only way the gospel works.
For example Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16) but the same John who recorded those words of Jesus writes in his epistle “Do not love the world, or the things of the world…” (1 John 2:15).
Does this mean God loves the world but does not want us to love it? is this the message? Well, when you read 1 John 2:16 further, it says, “For the lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, pride of life-is not of the Father but of the world”. It would seem God loves the people of the world (hence salvation in John 3:16 is offered to WHOEVER believes) but not the evil acts/behaviours of the world-the pride of life, lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes that are of the world.
Another indication of this distinction is that Christ died both for sinners and for sin itself. The Bible emphasizes those two points, for example
“ But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:7)
“ For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3)
So there was the matter of the sinner but before God could reach the sinner, He had to deal with sin on the cross of Christ and it is on that cross (where sin was judged) that the sinner can be reconciled to Christ.
God Himself made a distinction between sin and the sinner from the beginning when He told Cain,
“If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.” (Genesis 4:7)
Now that said, the reason loving the sinner and hating the sin is a scripturally consistent approach is because Jesus Christ expressly models it in the book of Revelation.
In the letter to the church in Pergamos He says,
“Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate.” (Revelation 2:15)
Still on the Nicolaitans, He says to the church in Ephesus,
“But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” (Revelation 2:6)
Two things are worthy of note.
First, Jesus Christ, love personified, says He hates the deeds and the doctrine of the Nicolaitans but He never says He hates the Nicolaitans themselves. If this is not a clear case of loving the sinner and hating the sinful deeds, I do not know what is.
Secondly…and this cannot be emphasized enough, Jesus expressly commends the church at Ephesus for hating what He hates. This again is very consistent with scripture which says,
“The fear of the Lord is to hate evil…” (Proverbs 8:13)
After all, it is written about Jesus,
“You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness;
Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You
With the oil of gladness more than Your companions.” (Hebrews 1:9)
This flies in the face of the “It’s all good man!” version of Jesus Christ that people who don’t care about Him or the Bible throw in our faces. The Jesus who never judged anybody and was just constantly surfing, hair blowing in the wind, emanating positive vibes and distributing warm hugs and kisses to everybody irrespective of their life choices. The Jesus of scripture was accused of being “a friend of sinners” but never “an endorser, encourager or approver of sin” (if He was, the Pharisees who were seeking an excuse to discredit and kill Him would have been sure to let us know). The Jesus of scripture overturned the table of money changers and blatantly told His audience,
“ …unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:3, Luke 13:5)
However, in none of these scriptures does Jesus tell people to hate evil people. In fact, on the contrary, Christ, the same one who hates lawlessness says,
“But I tell you not to resist an evil person…” (Matthew 5:39)
“But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44)
In conclusion, the gospel itself is testament of God loving the sinner but hating the sin. On the one hand, the sufferings of Christ on the cross stand as witness of God’s hatred of sin while on the other hand, the reconciliation of the cross and God giving up His own Son as the price to bridge the gap between Himself and the sinner is testimony of God’s love for the sinner. Jesus hated the sinful deeds and doctrines of the Nicolaitans and commended His church for hating the things He hated. However, Jesus never hated the Nicolaitans and taught His listeners to love and pray for evil people.
Loving the sinner, hating the sin is enshrined in the gospel and modelled by Jesus Christ Himself. It is thus possible for Christians to, like Christ, be friends of unbelievers without endorsing, encouraging or approving their sin (See also Romans 1:28–31).