A couple weeks ago, Joel Willits posted a critique of the oft-used cliché “love the sinner, hate the sin,” arguing:
This slogan is one of the most unbiblical ideas I’ve ever heard that get’s touted as if it were actually a verse in the Bible. However, the verses in the Bible, here Romans 5:1-11, actually teach the opposite. God loves the sinner full stop. No “But”!
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless Christ died for the ungodly. (5:6)
God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners Christ died for us. (5:8)
For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (5:10)
“Still powerless”, “the ungodly”, “still sinners”, and “God’s enemies”. God loved us as the person described by these characteristics. A person is not divisible in the way the cliche, and our underlying anthropology assumes. In the Bible there is no such division of a person that separates what we do from who we are. Identity is inseparable from our activity. Romans 5:1-11 teaches the radical idea: God loves the sinner. That’s how radical God love is. And praise be to God for his radical love.
Although I’m sympathetic to Willits’ sentiment in this post, I don’t think he’s exactly right. It is precisely God’s love that does separate sin from the sinner, transforming the sinner into something else. So in this sense the statement “love the sinner, hate the sin” isn’t exactly wrong, in much the same way that parents can love their drug-addicted son or daughter but hate the addiction enough to intervene and go to great personal and financial expense to get the kid clean. Only a person who loved a great deal would take such measures to free someone from addiction. Those who truly love the most are those who most hate sin, hate that which is harmful to the beloved. Other people can simply walk by, perhaps shaking their heads in pity. Thus parents are the most concerned for the behavior of their own children precisely because they love them the most.
That said, I think the big problem Willits is reacting to is that the phrase in question is more often used to defend general hatred of sinners while claiming to love each individual sinner, something more like “I hate gays, but I love each individual gay person.” That doesn’t—and can’t—work, nor is it a New Testament concept (not to mention the problem of defining a person by sexual orientation). But I don’t think the NT seems to share the philosophical perspective that sin and sinner are inseparable. The very concept of transformation by the Spirit (a key concept in the New Testament) depends on being able to separate the two. God’s mercy triumphs over judgment by transforming the sinner into a righteous person. Thus Paul is able to say “While we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8) in order to set us free from sin (Rom 8, et al.). The radical love of God as portrayed in the New Testament is the radical love of someone who takes the most extreme measures possible to separate sin from the sinner.