In the series “Half Truths”
Luke 18:9-14; Matthew 7:1-5
Throughout our series on “Half Truths,” we have considered some common sayings to discern the truth in them and the misleading or mistaken understandings about God behind them. At times, we have been challenged because we’ve held on to some of these ideas and because we were invited to examine ourselves in light of the whole truth of Jesus Christ. Today promises to continue that challenge as we wrap up our series with this final “Half Truth”: “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”
Of course, we all have our list – it’s probably not written down, but when we think about it, we can rattle it off pretty quickly. Here are a few from my own “list of sinners” to jog your thinking:
- Drivers who won’t let you merge onto I-75 or who tailgate you, not to mention drivers who buy cars without the turn signal
- Cable and Internet service representatives who put me on hold forever, only to tell me I have to pay more to get the service I’m already supposed to have
- My “friends” on Facebook who post argumentative, hurtful and offensive things
- And as an umbrella, mean people for any reason
So we say, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” I can hear some of you saying, “Wait a minute. That can’t be a half-truth – Jesus said it or it’s definitely in the Bible. Isn’t it?” I think we can certainly do worse than to live by this half-truth, but it’s still a half-truth.
While “Love the sinner, hate the sin” sounds like something should be in the Bible since the Bible talks a lot about love and sin, it’s not in there and Jesus didn’t say it.
The source is a bishop named Augustine, who lived in the late fourth to early fifth centuries. He wrote it as a response to some nuns who were struggling with how to address sin among their sisters. He told them to show “due love to the persons and hatred of the sin in observing, forbidding, reporting, proving and punishing other faults” (Letter 211). He was reminding the nuns to hold one another accountable so that God’s love could transform them into the image of Christ. It is doubtful that Augustine ever intended the statement to apply to people outside the church.
However, that’s not usually how we apply this half-truth. The statement seeks to remind us to separate the sin from the sinner. While that might be a useful psychological principle, let’s acknowledge that the half-truth has some problems.
Let’s begin with the truth in the statement. It mentions sin and sinners. What is sin? The words in the Bible’s original languages mean “to miss the mark” or “to stray from the path,” as in to miss God’s will or to stray from God’s intention for us. So sin is any thought, word, or action that is contrary to God’s will. It is also the failure to act in a way God would have us to act or to the failure to do something God wants us to do. It’s true that scripture says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). All of us are sinners. Many of our sins are involuntary; we think we’re walking on the path and we’re shocked when we look down and realize we’re in the underbrush instead. In Romans 7, Paul laments, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
In 1 Timothy 1:15, Paul wrote, “This saying is reliable and worthy of full acceptance: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.’” Then he added, “And I am the worst one.” If Jesus didn’t love sinners, then he didn’t love you and me. But he does love sinners and calls us to love sinners, too.
Jesus never commanded us to love the sinner. Once he said, “Love your enemies.” Another time he said, “Love God. Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” After he declared this, a religious scholar came to him and tried to pin him down on the details by asking, “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus told one of his most famous parables (Luke 10:25-37). He told the story of a man who carelessly traveled alone down a dangerous road. There’s more than one way to go down a dangerous road in life, isn’t there? The man was beaten, robbed and left to die along the road. Some religious people came down that road, but they didn’t stop to help him. Finally, a foreigner came along, and he tried to help the man. He extended himself through caring actions and offered generous financial support.
Jesus concluded the story by saying, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” right? Not at all! He asked the man, “Who was a neighbor to the man who was robbed?”
The questioner replied, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”
I think that because Jesus understood our human minds and tendencies, he didn’t say, “Love the sinner,” but instead said, “Love your neighbor.”
When we say, “love the sinner,” we have already labeled and judged the other person as someone who is guilty of sin. Sometimes when Christians say, “We’re all sinners,” we mean something along the lines of “We’re all sinners, but I’m not as bad as you.”
Jesus’ parable from Luke 18 illustrates that tendency; he even addressed it to people who looked down on others. Two men went to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee – that is, the religious person – prayed, “Thank you, God, that I am not like all those other people, especially that tax collector over there.”
Meanwhile, the tax collector, who worked for the enemy Roman government prayed, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus pronounced that only the tax collector was right with God. The religious man had become prideful and judgmental toward others.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was teaching about this same attitude. He said, “Don’t judge, or you will be judged in the same way you judge others” (Matt 7:1-2). Then he illustrated the point imaginatively: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (7:3). And he advised, “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
Jesus never said, “Love the sinner” because it would have been redundant. He said, “Love your neighbor” and “Love your enemies.” He knew our human tendency to label and judge others and to focus on their sin, rather than who they are. “Love the sinners” puts in the position of looking down on others as sinners, rather than as our neighbors – people who are deserving of God’s mercy and love, just as we are.
Problems also arise with “hate the sin.” In his ministry, Jesus spent much of his time with tax collectors, prostitutes, adulterers and all kinds of sinners. However, at no time do we hear Jesus say to any of them, “I love you, but hate your sin.” When Jesus spoke to sinners, he didn’t talk about their sin; instead he focused on God’s forgiveness.
The only time Jesus expressed a hatred of sin was directed toward the religious leaders. In Matthew 23:27-28, he said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” He was angry about the sin of hypocrisy. Christians whose words say one thing and lives reflect something else are one of the main reasons people give for avoiding the church.
There’s a cartoon showing St. Peter at the pearly gates of heaven, looking in the Book of Life, as someone waits to be admitted. He says to him, “You were a believer, yes. But you skipped the not-being-a-jerk-about-it part.” I hope to be a Christian without being a jerk, and I hope that you will choose to do the same.
Some argue that Romans 12:9 justifies hating sin. It reads, “Let love be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.” However, this verse does not tell us to hate the sin in someone else’s life. Paul is telling us to hate the evil we might be tempted to pursue in our own lives. Don’t pretend to show love, and in the next breath, judge the person. “Let love be sincere.”
Let me offer you some free advice for Valentine’s Day this week. If you want to mess up your day, say, “Honey, I love you, but …” and fill in the blank.” Why doesn’t that work? Because once we say “but,” all the attention moves away from “I love you” and on to whatever is the problem being mentioned (snoring, cooking, cleaning, don’t help with chores).
Billy Graham was once asked by his daughter Gigi why he publicly befriended President and Mrs. Clinton during the impeachment. Graham replied, “It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict; it’s God’s job to judge; and it’s our job to love.”
Yes, there is sin in the world. Our call is not to love the sinner and hate the sin. We are called to work to change the places in our world where sin takes root and exploits others.
We are called to let God’s love forgive our sin and transform us into the image of Christ. What the half-truth gets right is our call to love. Let’s lay aside our sin and seek to love one another humbly and graciously with God’s love.
Maybe today’s summary of “love” is a good wrap up for our whole series on “Half Truths.”
Let us pray.
Lord, we are thankful that you came to offer forgiveness rather than judgment to us. You came not to point out our sin so much as to show us the way and the truth and the life. Thank you for showing us mercy and continuing to forgive and love us. Help us to welcome people and love them in your name, not just on Sunday morning or at church, but in our lives every day. Amen.