Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Why "Love the sinner, hate the sin" is killing the church

You've heard it said, "Love the sinner, hate the sin." You've probably even said that. I know I have.

I've been preaching through a new series lately entitled, "That's NOT in the Bible" where I've talked about several popular sayings, just like the one above, that cannot be found anywhere in Scripture. I've done this in order to examine whether these sayings we put so much stock in are true or not. Some of the sayings like, "God helps those who help themselves" have been easy to debunk. I've also shown how saying "God won't give me more than I can handle" is not only wrong (God regularly gives us more than we can handle) but it's also dangerous because we often begin to think we can handle our problems on our own.

This last Sunday, I talked about the frequently used motto of the righteous believer "Love the sinner. Hate the sin." I went into this message with some trepidation because while I figured that most people would correctly guess that this is not a direct quote from Scripture, they might respond by saying that it is a true statement which can be backed up with Scripture.

I must admit that in recent days this phrase has begun to trouble me a great deal, but I've been hesitant to throw this saying out of my repertoire. I was worried that if I stood up and claimed that this simply wasn't true, then what would I say my stance was on those who openly lived their lives in a manner that is obviously inconsistent with Scripture? Would I then be following in the footsteps of many who have chosen just to adopt a stance of refusing to call someone else's sin a sin?

I have come to the place where I believe this statement is wrong, as I will show in a moment, but I also realize that I can't just remove this statement. I must replace it with something else.

Before I offer my humble solution to this problem, let's bring a familiar passage of Scripture into our conversation. Take a moment and read the story of the woman caught in adultery in John, chapter 8.

At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap,u in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.  At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
The New International Version. 2011 (Jn 8:2–11). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Now, with this story in mind, let's once again examine how the saying, "Love the sinner, hate the sin" stacks up against God's Word.

1. Love the sinner. First of all, let me say that I unequivocally believe that God loves sinners. It has to be true because He loves me. Also, I can't argue against the fact that Christ showed great love and mercy to this woman and she was undoubtedly a sinner. The problem for me is not in trying show God's view towards sinners, it's in how we use this statement to look at sinners.

Think about this for a second. When we use this statement, we are immediately viewing that "sinner" in the context of their sin. In other words, using this statement is allowing me to look at some other person and see him or her first and foremost by the name of a sin. This means that I'm saying, "To me, your name is adulterer/gossiper/drunkard/abuser/homosexual, but I love you!" How can I really love someone when I view them primarily in the context of sin?

Would you want to be treated this way? Think of your ugliest, darkest, most shameful sin, and then ask yourself if you would be okay with others coming up to after church and saying, "Good to see, _______ (fill in the blank with that sin.)" Of course you would never stand for that. You would be appalled if others constantly dealt with you based on what sins you have committed. So if you don't want to be treated like that, how can you do this to others?

In the passage, those pharisees couldn't see that woman as anything more than an adulterer. She was an adulterer, but they were more concerned with treating her by her sin instead of helping her receive grace and forgiveness. However, what we can see is that Jesus did not treat this woman just by her sin, but as a child of God.

So while it is true that I am to love sinners, I must get rid of this part of the statement, because of the attitude it allows to dwell in my heart.

2. Hate the sin. I know what you're thinking. There's no way I could have a problem with the statement "Hate the sin." Actually, I do. If it was simply "Hate sin" and not combined with something else, I wouldn't have a problem. I am supposed to hate sin because God hates sin. However, when I say "hate the sin" in conjunction with "Love the sinner" what I'm really saying is, "I hate your sin."

One of the things I love about this passage in John is that Christ turns the Pharisee's hatred over sin back on themselves. He said, "Whoever is without sin, cast the first stone." Then, these men had to realize that their sin disqualified them from being the accusers.

It's the proverbial plank in your own eye situation. I'm much more ready to judge and hate someone else's sin instead of examining my own life and addressing the sins I see there. What would be appropriate would be for me to say, "I hate my sin." Therefore, I must throw out this part of the saying as well.  Saying those words are only allowing me to justify myself and my actions towards others, while in reality it's causing me to stand in a position over others that God has not granted me.

So what do we do about someone else's sin? If I must stop using this statement as a way to feel better about not giving my approval of another's lifestyle, how do I keep from being someone who just refuses to call out sin and stand on the truth of what the Bible teaches? If I throw out "Love the sinner, hate the sin" do I just allow others to decide for themselves what they want to call sin and then just stay out of their way? Do I just tolerate any sin and behavior that is around me or that is in the church just so I don't run the risk of judging someone else?

There must be an answer. Let's look at a few options to see how we can replace the saying and fix the problem.

Option #1 -  Love the sinner, not their sin. Sound good, doesn't it. I've removed hate from the equation. Problem solved. But wait a minute! All I've really done is give an ambivalent attitude towards sin and that could just lead me to accept whatever sins are in those around me as permissible. Let's not choose this option.

Option #2 - Love the sinner, hate your own sin. Well, now I'm getting a little closer. At least I'm willing to take a look at myself first before I judge others. But then again, by using this statement, I'm still choosing to look at others first and foremost as sinners, instead of beloved children of God. Let's not choose this option.

Before I give the third option, why don't I stop trying to come up with some other statement that's not in the Bible just to replace an already faulty statement that's not in the Bible. Why don't I just let God's Word stand on its own and use what I know to be true to help us deal with the problem. So with this in mind, let's choose to replace "Love the sinner, hate the sin" with

Option #3 - Love your neighbor as yourself. Think about it for a moment. Isn't this the perfect replacement to our incorrect thinking? When I look at those around me, I should see them as my neighbors, those whom God has placed in my path in order the share the Gospel with. Do they sin? Of course they do and so do I.  However, I'm now on the path of no longer looking upon them first as a sinner but instead as one whom God deeply loves and wants to reach through me.

More than this, not only am I just supposed to love my neighbor, I'm supposed to love them as I love myself. What does that truly mean? Think back to the Bible story. Jesus didn't say the woman hadn't sinned. He simply said, "neither do I condemn you. Now, go leave your life of sin." This woman encountered mercy in the face of her sin, and Christ gave her a choice of how she would respond to experiencing such mercy. Would she keep on sinning without thought of consequence or would she seek to change her life, with God's help, because she wouldn't dare continuing to live like that after being given such a great gift?

Therefore, if I realize that as a Christian I've been given a second chance and been shown mercy in spite of my sin, then I should hope, pray, and strive toward the same end in how I treat those around me. I don't have to start accepting the sinful actions of those around me. I don't have to stop talking about what sin is in order not to offend or accidentally judge someone else. However, I am called to live as a redeemed, loving child of God who is ready to engage, help, and pray for the neighbors God has placed in my life, I must be willing to do so even when they are still living in the blindness of their sins, for who knows when I might be able to treat them with the same love and mercy of which God has shown me.

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