I’m offering these reflections in three parts. First, we’ll take a look at the history of this saying. Second, we’ll evaluate it in the context of the Good News as I understand it, and consider an alternative that I think better serves the spirit of Christ’s call. Finally, we’ll address one of the ways this saying is frequently applied, how it is problematic, and how the suggested alternative could be beneficial.
Part 1: Some Background
Many contemporary Christians, including me, have spoken this statement, or some variation of it, as if it is traditional doctrine, if not actually scriptural. In fact, it is neither, although there are scriptural references that might be used to support it, such as these:
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Romans 12:9
Show mercy to those who doubt. Pull others out of the fire. Save them. To others, show mercy mixed with fear. Hate even the clothes that are stained by the sins of those who wear them. Jude 22-23
So what is the source of this supposed doctrine? The earliest known approximation of the modern version comes from St. Augustine of Hippo. In a letter counseling quarreling nuns, he said: Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum. (Opera Omnia, Vol II. Col. 962, #211) This statement actually translates as “with love of persons and hatred of sins.” Notice that it doesn’t refer to those persons by the term “sinners.” The contemporary saying is also misattributed to Mohandas Gandhi, who only reflected upon it in his autobiography. As far as I know, the first English statement of “hate the sin, but love the sinner” appears in Edward Irving’s book, Sermons, Lectures, and Occasional Discourses, Volume 1 (1828), pp. 131-132:
“It is a vain thing to say that God loveth sinners and ungodly creatures: he extendeth mercy and grace unto them, and loveth the election for his Son’s sake; but he must cease to love his Son – that is, to love himself – when he loveth those who are rebellious against himself. He is “angry with the wicked every day:” he cannot look upon the workers of iniquity but with detestation and abhorrence. It is one of the sayings of that wretched Arminianism, with which the land is overflowed, ‘Hate the sin, but love the sinner.’ What mean they? That sin is something by itself, and the sinner something by himself, so distinct from one another, that the one may well be hated, and the other may well be loved? They know nothing at all, and they will know nothing at all.”
To some extent, I agree that sin and sinner are inseparable, but that is about as far as my agreement with Irving goes. It seems clear that he is trying to justify hatred toward those we would judge as sinners, and yet even his logic diverts from his own assertion that God extends mercy and grace to sinners. What are mercy and grace if not expressions of love? His reasoning also falters in concluding that it is hateful toward oneself to love those who rebel against you. Does every mother who loves a rebellious child therefore hate herself? To me, this position is absurd, makes love sound petty, and casts God as terribly small.
The Christian scriptural basis of Irving’s argument is also questionable. His only scriptural quotation, “angry with the wicked every day,” is from Psalm 7:11, but there are so many things attributed directly to Jesus and his apostles that contradict the way he is using it. For example, he would have a very hard time reconciling his position with Jesus’ very clear instruction to “love your enemies.” Furthermore, in Romans 5:6-10, we actually find a powerful refutation of Irving’s argument:
For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.
Let’s not get mired in a scriptural duel, parrying and thrusting with passages taken out of context. That would be a distraction from the most important point of this series, which is to suggest a different approach to Christian ethics than “hate the sin, but love the sinner.” In Part 2, I will therefore deal with this matter in light of what I believe to be the central moral themes of the Good News.