Some time ago I took up a detailed exchange on twitter with a lady who had proudly stated that she was cutting out “hate the sin” from the phrase, ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’. She was happily proclaiming her decision to stick with ‘’love the sinner’’ because this was apparently more biblical.
Her post won her a few retweets and likes, but I disagreed and gave good reasons for doing so. The biblical imperatives such as: “Let love be genuine, abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good” (Romans 12:9) mean that there is a distinction between love for the sinner and sin. To remove the “hate the sin” clause is to leave too much room for “love the sinner” to easily become “ignore the sin” or worse “love the sin as much as the sinner”.
The distinction between loving the sinner and hating the sin, is at the very core of Jesus Christ’s reconciliation of humanity with God. Without a separation between sin and sinner grounded in God’s act in Jesus Christ, there can only be a further separation of the sinner from God. For sin separates the sinner from the Sinless. Only in Jesus Christ can the sinner be freed from sin and reconciled to God.
In a rebuttal to my response, an academic (I presume a theologian) proudly stepped in. He then decided to lecture me on the error of my ways.
In response, I brought up Bonhoeffer:
‘Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners! But it is the grace of the Gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand, that it confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you. He wants you as you are; He does not want anything from you, as sacrifice, a work; he wants you alone. You can hide nothing from God. The mask you wear before men will do you no good before Him […] He wants to be gracious to you. You can dare to be a sinner [dare to be who you really are before God; a sinner]. Thank God for that; He loves the sinner but Hates the sin.’ (Confession & Communion, Life Together, 1954)
My interlocutor huffed with pride. He said that he’d read everything of Bonhoeffer’s work and was sure that Bonhoeffer had never used the phrase. So I provided page, date, book title, chapter and verse. Then pointed out, “loving the sinner, hating the sin” isn’t something Bonhoeffer spoke as a one off. Bonhoeffer had also included it in The Cost of Discipleship,
‘May we be enabled to say ‘No’ to sin and ‘Yes’ to the sinner. May we withstand our foes, and yet hold out to them the Word of the gospel which woos and wins the souls of men.’ (p.xxxiv)
After I provided the reference which proved him wrong, he dismissed my thoughts and ended his correspondence. The lady maintained her position. Then had to have the last word by tweeting at me her reasons for doing so.
It will not make me popular, (because it didn’t) but standing by the exegetical accuracy of Bonhoeffer’s statements on the issue, is far safer ground than building an unbiblical ethic around subjective human ideas of God. Standing on what, where and in whom God reveals himself, is far safer ground than making deceptive theological statements which repaints Christianity as solely being about an ethic of “niceness”.
I’ll end this with Reinhold Niebuhr, who very aptly hinted at the same thing when he wrote:
‘A position of detachment destroys our responsibilities in life’s controversies for the sake of avoiding sinful corruptions of those responsibilities. We ought to be angry when wrong is done; but we must learn the difficult art of being angry without sinning.’
(R.Niebuhr, Discerning The Signs of the Times.)
[i] Bonhoeffer, D. 1954. Life Together, HarperCollins Publishers
[ii] Bonhoeffer, D. 1934. Cost of Discipleship, SCM Press
[iii] Niebuhr, R. 1946. Discerning the Signs of the Times
Artwork: John Martin, 1840 ‘Calvary’