Many Christians don’t realise the phrase, “Hate the sin, but love the sinner” is a quote by Mahatma Gandhi. It has been said so much that some scripturally uneducated Christians pass it off as scriptural teaching. Jesus never said this. In fact, nothing in Scripture supports this ideal. The phrase becomes dangerous in that it often becomes justification for judgement and condemnation of others. We begin to hate the sin in a person so much that we begin to hate the sinner instead. As Christians, our faith and our actions in response to this faith must rely on the words of Jesus, not the words of unbelievers like Gandhi, no matter how appealing worldly wisdom appears to be. In no way is this phrase true. God hates sin and He hates the sinner, but not in the way we think “hate” means.
What Does God’s “Hate” Mean?
People defend this saying as coming from Scripture by using Jude 22-23, “And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.” This Scripture calls us to have compassion on sinners because all sin corrupts (remember, even Christians fall under the category of “sinner”). In the Lutheran Study Bible commentary, it says this, “Correcting one another must be done with fear, because all Christians are sinners, attracted to sin. Sin is not to be toyed with or dallied in. Unrepented sin is like a stain on our robe of righteousness, which we have from Christ. Only His blood can make it white again with His forgiveness” (Engelbrecht, 2,192). God calls us to love good and hate evil (Romans 12:9). Scripture does not support the phrase that God hates the sin but loves the sinner. All of Scripture speaks of His hate for the wicked (Psalm 45:7; Hebrews 1:9). The psalmist David recollects, “You hate all evildoers” (Psalm 5:4-6). In fact, we read of His hate for certain sinful people (Malachi 1:3; Revelation 2:6, etc.).
As human beings who are sinners, we cannot love perfectly and we cannot hate without sin. Somehow, God is able to both hate the sinner but also desire their salvation (John 3:16; 2 Peter 3:9). Only God can hate without sin. If we live apart from God, He considers us His enemies, but while we were His enemies He reconciled us to Himself through Christ and are thus saved from sin (Romans 5:10). Only God can simultaneously love someone He’s created and hate them for their unbelief and sinfulness.
When God said He hated Esau, for example (Malachi 1:3), we must think of this in light of what Jesus said about hating our father, mother, wife, and children (Luke 14:26). Jesus was not saying we must literally hate our family and friends in order to love Him; He was saying we must love Him first and above all things, even friends and family. This means when our unbelieving parent or sibling threatens to disown us for loving Jesus, we cannot be His disciple if we love Him less than our family. After all, this ultimatum is based on a conditional love—”I’ll only love you if you reject Jesus”; whereas Jesus’ love for us is unconditional, “I love you because I choose to, not based on what you do for Me.”
This love/hate idiom is Hebraically understood as preference over another, not literal hatred as we define it and express it in our sin. God had preference over Esau in that He chose him to serve his younger brother, Jacob (Genesis 25:23; Romans 9:12-13). This is the same type of “hatred” Jesus calls us to—to prefer Him over our family and friends. So, when God “hates,” He is giving preferential treatment in connection to His salvific promise in Christ. He preferred Jacob over Esau (or “hated” Esau) because He chose Jacob’s line to lead to Christ for salvation (i.e. election). The word for “hate” in the Hebrew text is שָׂנֵא (sanē), which the Hebrew understanding of this word is to be in an adversarial relationship with a person. God chose to have a favourable (preferential) relationship with Jacob because of His salvific plan, which left Esau to have an adversarial relationship with Him (since He chose Jacob over Esau). Still, though, what does God do with Esau? He blesses him and makes him into a nation. If God hated Esau as we think it to be, why would God bless him and make him into a nation? That’s not hatred by our definition of it; it’s love and mercy.
God also hates the works of the Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:6) because of the destructive nature of their false teachings leading one away from salvation. (Nicolaitans ate meat offered to pagan gods and engaged in sexual immorality. These sins led Christians away from salvation, thus God hates their actions.) God, then, hates evildoers (unbelievers) because their actions constantly lead them away from salvation and attempt to lead others away from it and encourage others to reject His love. That is, He gives preferential treatment to those who know Christ over those who reject Him. This preferential treatment is His love and salvation, for it is by His love that we receive salvation; without His love, we cannot receive salvation. Therefore, it only makes sense that to be outside His love and salvation is to be hated by Him—that is, to not receive His salvific preferential treatment.
Whenever Scripture speaks of God’s hate, we must remember it is by no means the same kind of hate we express toward one another. As sinful human beings, we cannot fully understand this; indeed, many do not accept it. We can only hate with sinful intent, and because sin corrupts everything, when we hate the sin with the intention of loving the sinner, our motives inevitably become twisted and we begin to hate the sinner.
As God is perfect, only He can hate without sin because He is holy, which is expressed as preference over another. God expresses this preference for His children in one way in that He listens to our prayers and not those of unbelievers (John 9:31). Ultimately, God expresses His preference when He adopts us as His children in Baptism (Ephesians 1:4-5), which saves us (1 Peter 3:21). God hates sin and those who live in it because they, in their unrepentant sin, live in a way contrary to His nature. He is holy, pure, and righteous; sin is not. Therefore, God hates anything that is unholy, impure, and unrighteous, including those in whom it perpetually dwells. If God did not hate sin, He would not be holy. It is true that God is love, but He is also wrath, justice, and vengeance. God does not send sins to Hell; He sends sinners to Hell.
The Paradoxical Symbiosis between God’s Love & “Hate”
If God hates us as sinners, how can He love us? God loves us because of the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Even when He hated us, He loved us in that He chose to die for our sins. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly… But God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us… For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son…” (Romans 5:6, 8, 10a). This symbiosis between love and hate that God has for unrepentant sinners is difficult to fathom and accept. We are left to think, “As an unbeliever, God hates me, but He also loves me in that He chose to die for me? How is this possible?”
It’s not logical, but it’s not supposed to be logical. Besides, is there any kind of love that’s purely logical? I imagine this paradoxical symbiosis like my relationship with my little sister. My sister is far from God, and only because she refuses to accept what His Word says about the sins of homosexuality and transgenderism. Because of this, and since I’m going to be a pastor, she’s rejected me and my love since I hate those sins, among many other sins. I love my sister, but I hate the life she lives away from me and my God. In the same way, God loves us, but He hates the life unbelievers live when they reject His love. And since He is a just God, He sends His promised wrath against the wicked as punishment.
Does God love everyone? Yes, because He desires they turn from their wicked ways and live (Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11; 2 Peter 3:9). But that does not mean God cannot hate sin, wickedness, evil, and those who practise them. However, we have wonderful news in that Jesus came not for the righteous, but for sinners and calls them to repentance (Luke 5:32). God came down in the man Christ to die for us. He hates sin so much that He loved us enough to die for us. If anything, His love outshines His hate. He hated us so much that He loved us enough to die for us. What an odd thing to say, yet it is the reality of His holiness, purity, and righteousness. He hated things contrary to His nature so much that He couldn’t stand to see it, so instead of extinguishing all of us, which would’ve been our just punishment, He saved us in His love by dying for us on the cross. Only with God can there be such Gospel in His hate. God says, “I hated you so much that I died for you, because I love you.” Weird, right? It’s almost… alien? You would be right to think such love is alien, for God’s alien righteousness is that He makes us righteous for Christ’s sake, which is received by faith. This is only possible because of His love for us.
God’s love is described in two Greek words: ἀγάπη and φίλος (agape and philos). (There are other words used to describe God’s love, but these are the two primary words used.) Agape is a love of selfless devotion and philos is a love of friendship—a love in which one is pleased with a person and enjoys their company. God expresses these two types of love for His Son (John 5:20, 35)—philos for verse 20 and agape for verse 35. We cannot see the difference in English, but the difference is clear in the original Greek.
God loved (agape) the world in that He sent His Son to die for the world (John 3:16) and placed our sins upon Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). In Christ, God turned His wrath away from us and placed it upon His only Son. Those who do not believe in His Son, therefore, remain under His wrath (John 3:36) because their sins have not been removed. We are also loved (philos) by the Father in that He dwells in us as the Holy Spirit, for we become His temples (1 Corinthians 6:19). And so, God shows His preferential treatment for us in that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).