For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Over the last several weeks, we’ve been working our way through a series called “That’s NOT in the Bible!” Each week, we’ve looked at a different phrase or proverb that sounds like it could be Biblical wisdom, often gets quoted as Biblical wisdom, or at the very least, serves as a summary statement of a particular worldview often espoused by people of Christian faith. The problem with all of these sayings is that not only are they not in the Bible, many of them actually advance a view of God that is grossly inconsistent with who Scripture truly reveals God to be.
The world offers us its version of wisdom, and that’s what all of these phrases are, yet the Gospel offers us so much more. Turn to your sermon notes as we look at this week’s phrase, “Hate the sin; love the sinner.” May we pray.
So we know the phrase “Hate the sin; love the sinner” isn’t from the Bible. So where did it come from? Our quiz on the origin of these phrases has been missing for the last couple weeks, but I’m pleased to bring it back today. I’m going to give you four options for the origin of this phrase, and I want you to vote by raising your hand for the person you think originated the phrase, ok?
Option A - St. Augustine (354-430) - the philosopher and theologian most influential in the development of Western Christianity, he was appointed bishop in present-day Algiers, in northern Africa.
Option B - Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) - the Renaissance humanist theologian, most famous for his work, Oration on the Dignity of Man, in which he argued for the dignity of all persons on the basis of their having been created in the image of God.
Option C - George deBenneville (1703-1793) - London born who immigrated to the American colonies, he was a Universalist preacher and evangelist and was influential in forming the Universalist Church of America.
Option D - Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) - the preeminent political and ideological leader of India, most known for his non-violent resistance and civil disobedience.
And the origin of the phrase goes to - St. Augustine and Gandhi - it’s a bookend tie! The phrase itself as we know it came directly from Gandhi’s 1929 autobiography. However, in Augustine’s letter 211, written around 424, is the phrase, Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum, which roughly translates as “With love for mankind and hatred of sins.”
Context is vital to our understanding. Part of the problem for Christians is that we seem to have lost the Biblical meaning of the word “sin.” Sin doesn’t mean “bad” or “bad things.” In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word is chatta’t and it means, “separation.” In the New Testament, the Greek word hamartia, is translated “sin.” It’s a term from archery that literally means “to miss the mark.” It’s when you let the arrow go and it fails to hit the target. So sin is both a condition - one of separation from God, and a missing of the mark - aiming our lives away from God.
This Biblical understanding of sin helps us understand St. Augustine’s use of the phase. Prior to his Christian conversion, Augustine had lived a pretty sensuous life - lots of women, lots of drinking and partying and all sorts of self-indulgent behavior. During that phase of his life, he didn’t hate his sins at all - he was actually enjoying them! And so, when Augustine writes, “with love for mankind and hatred of sins,” he calls to rid ourselves of anything that separates us from God and neighbor. He is actually reframing Jesus’ command to “love God and love neighbor.” And here’s the really fascinating thing: he is referring here to hating our own sin, yet when the phrase is used today, most commonly it is used to refer to the sin of others.
Hating the sin while claiming to love the sinner gives us an opportunity to place more emphasis on the shortcomings of others rather than ourselves. In Matthew 7, Jesus told us to judge not, lest we should be judged. Concerning sin, he told us not to fuss about the speck of sawdust in our brother or sister’s eye when we’re blinded by a 2x4 plank in our own eye. Or, in John 8, a group of people point out to Jesus a woman who had been caught in adultery and remind him that the law teaches she should be stoned to death, and they want his response, and he says, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7).
In other words, it is quite inappropriate for us to go around pointing out the faults, shortcomings, failures, and weaknesses of others when we still have so many of our own. “Hate the sin; love the sinner” fails to meet this test because it focuses not on our own sin, but on that of someone else. The Scriptures clearly teach that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:32), but the caution for Christians is to remember that this applies to us on the inside as well as those we perceive to be on the outside, and perhaps we who live in stained-glass houses should think twice before we start throwing stones.
Then, understanding this phrase in context, we come back to the phrase which appears in Gandhi’s autobiography; many people assume it’s a worldview he embraced. Not so. Just read the whole sentence he actually wrote: “Hate the sin and not the sinner is a precept which though easy enough to understand is rarely practiced, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world.”
Why is it hard to practice? Because our feeble human minds have an impossible time making a distinction between a sin and the person who commits it. Even with the best and noblest of intentions, we end up hating the person right along with the sin, and for this reason, evil, prejudice, and bias continues to spread. There are plenty of examples of this through history – groups whose blind hatred has contributed to great evil being committed in the world.
What I find most disturbing about each of these examples is that each operates from a position of self-righteousness, so convinced of the divine correctness of their own position that they really are convinced they are doing God’s bidding in the evils they commit. There is an awful lot of evil proudly parading around in the world that people have been kind enough to attach God’s name to. But friends, know this – God is not the author of evil, and when an agenda of hate is advanced anywhere, God’s heart breaks and God weeps with us.
Hating the sin while claiming to love the sinner too easily spreads hate in the world, because I am convinced that hate is just too strong a human emotion for us to keep under control. We, as humans, are not disciplined enough to handle our hate, and when we give into it, it becomes a white-hot consuming fire within us that blinds us to all else.
Perhaps you’ve heard the Native American story about the elder of the community who was once asked how she had become so wise, so loving, and so kind over her lifetime. She replied, “There are within me two wolves – one of love, and one of hate. You can’t feed them both, and so each day, whichever one I feed, that’s the one that grows.”
Friends, the gospel calls us not to feed hate; following Jesus Christ requires that we feed love. Yes, we are sinners – even St. Paul referred to himself as “chief among sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15) – yet the gospel remains good news for all sinners, for we are clearly told “God proves his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). God loves sinners – all sinners – there is no way around that. When it comes to sin, our task is not to point out the sins of the sinners around us, because let’s be honest, people know there is an emptiness inside them, a separation from God – yes, sin – people know that without our best-intentioned efforts to point it out to them. People try to fill that emptiness with all sorts of things, but rather than yelling about whatever other people have placed in their cup, we just keep offering them the real thing; we just keep making room for them around our table, we just keep inviting sinners to meet the Savior.
Do you see how “loving the sinner and hating the sin?” lands just a little bit off target? Again, hate is just too powerful for us. We are not disciplined enough to keep from sliding down its slippery slope. We can start out with the best and noblest of intentions to hate the sin and not the sinner, but hate is so powerful we run the very grave risk of hating the sinner right along with the sin. And if there is even the slightest chance that we might end up hating our neighbor rather than loving them, that’s a risk that is simply too great to take. Fully half of Jesus’ great commandment was that we should love our neighbor, and if there is even the remotest possibility that we would be led down the path of hatred rather than love, it’s just not worth it.
If we are going to hate anyone’s sin, the only person whose sin we have a right to hate is our own, and that’s it. And yet, I place a word of caution in even doing that – the same slippery slope that applies to hating the sin of others also applies to ourselves. We too easily slide from hating our sin to hating ourselves, and a people who are full of self-hate are going to find it very difficult to love anyone.
Rather than hating sin – whether that is our own or someone else’s – let me suggest a response to sin that is more faithful to the Biblical tradition. When it comes to sin, we should mourn our own, and forgive others. Mourn our own because we are deeply grieved at the distance between ourselves and God, forgive others because we are deeply grieved at the distance between them and us. Mourning and forgiveness keeps us from feeding the wolf of hate and stunts the growth of hate within us. It’s a much different emotional response than giving into hate, but the results are much more faithful to what God desires from us.
We don’t have to hate sin in order to take it seriously. Indeed, mourning and forgiveness are both hard work – infinitely harder than simply giving in to hate. Hate is the easy way out. Mourning our own sin and forgiving the sin of others requires that we cannot gloss over sin or ignore it. Sin, and its emptiness, its brokenness, its great separation from God and all the effects that come with it are very real. The reality of sin forces us to do the hard work of mourning and forgiving, in order that whatever distance there is between us and God, and us and others, is closed.
The reality of sin should make us all the more diligent in sharing God’s love with all sinners. Let us be faithful in freely, radically, recklessly sharing God’s love with all – to invite and welcome all people into the church’s fellowship, to push our doors open a little wider, to put ourselves out a little more to seek and save those around us, to crowd a few more chairs around God’s table – precisely because of the reality of sin and God’s great, overflowing, abundant love for sinners, his love that was displayed in Christ’s willingness to die to save sinners, including you and including me.
It is the gospel – Christ died to save sinners. At just the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. Christ died for unrighteous people. Christ died for those who didn’t deserve it. Christ died for people on the outside, even though those on the inside were trying desperately to keep them out – why? Because Christ’s death for sinners was how God proved God’s love for sinners. All sinners. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
For us, as disciples of Jesus, it simply means that we’ve acknowledged that reality and are trying to follow Jesus as best as we can through God’s grace. It doesn’t make us better than anyone, it simply makes us co-laborers in God’s project to reach the hearts of sinners with his love. The way we do that is not to point out the shortcomings of others or to add to the pain, brokenness, and separation in their life. Not at all. Rather, our God-given task is to throw out the welcome mat for sinners of every shape and form, with the recognition that we are no different or better than any of them. We’re all sinners in need of a Savior, and those of us who know him have the joyful pleasure of introducing him to others who haven’t yet made his acquaintance.
Christ died for us, all of us, while we were yet sinners. That proves God’s love toward us! You know what we call that? Grace. Marvelous, infinite, matchless grace. Amazing grace. That’s a treasured hymn, in part, because it cuts right to the heart of how God deals with sinners. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a . . .” what? “Wretch like me.” Not amazing grace that saved a good person like me, a godly person like me, a perfect person like me, a faithful church member like me, an all-star volunteer for Jesus like me – a wretch like me. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved an imperfect, clumsy, ignorant, selfish, prideful, hateful person – a wretch, a sinner – like me. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to hate or marginalize anyone else with this melody in your head? Hmmmmmm . . . .
Any time you feel the impulse of hate swelling within you, anytime that wolf inside is screaming out “Feed Me!” you just hum “Amazing Grace” to yourself, and allow God to do some amazing work in you.
Whenever I am tempted to hate the sin of another, or even when I’m tempted to hate them, I have to remember that I’m not so different from them as I might like to think. I, too, am a sinner, dependent upon a grace that belongs not to me but the God who saves me. God proves his love in that while we were yet sinners, each and every one of us, Christ died for us, and for them.