If you were with us last week, you might remember that we’re spending the season of Lent taking a deeper look at some of the popular Christian-ish phrases that are kind of true, but really miss the mark in significant ways.

Today’s half-truth is “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

Scripture: John 3:1-17
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus fascinates me on several levels – but what fascinates me most is the air of secrecy around the whole thing.

Nicodemus comes to him at night – presumably in some sort of secure location, because right before this Jesus had been flipping over tables in the Temple and chasing the folks who were selling things and changing money out with a whip.

Nicodemus, for his part, is a Pharisee by day and a seeker by night. He’s at least intrigued by Jesus, but he seems to be trying to figure out how someone sent by God could be acting like this.

And the whole time, Jesus speaks in metaphor and code. He doesn’t come right out and say “I’m the Son of God, and I’m here to clean up your mess.”

Instead, he talks of internal transformation so deep and radical, so all-encompassing and complete, that it’s like you’re being born a second time – seeing a whole new world and learning to walk and talk and live all over again.

We don’t quite understand the mechanics of it, because that transformation is as invisible as the wind – we can only see its effects on the people and things around it.

So what on earth does this have to do with “love the sinner, hate the sin”?

All of this – both the transformation that Jesus speaks of and the love/hate relationship the Church has with messy people – comes down to questions of identity and action.

So let’s break this down a little bit, starting with the “love the sinner” part.

Here’s the thing: no one needs to be reminded how messed up we are. Folks understand sin and brokenness more deeply than we like to give them credit for. That’s the easy part.

What’s harder to grasp, for Nicodemus and for us – what we need to be reminded of again and again and again – is grace. It flows so freely from the heart of God, but it does not come naturally to humanity.

For those of you who’ve been listening for the last three years, what six-word sentence do I begin every single worship service with?

“Beloved people of God, good morning!”

If I started every service, instead, with “Good morning, sinners!”, this would be a very different kind of space. And honestly, if any pastor ever pulled that in a church I was visiting, I’d be out the back door before they even got through announcements.

Because my identity, the core of who I am, is not my sin. Do I sin, and screw up, and need forgiveness for all sorts of things every single day? Absolutely.

But because of Jesus’ love and grace, poured out for the whole world, as we’re reminded in our Scripture passage today, ‘sinner’ is not my primary identity. ‘Sinner’ is no one’s primary identity.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus commands us to love one another – but never once does he use the word ‘sinner.’

Here’s what Jesus does say:

Love your neighbors (which, spoiler alert, is everyone)

Love your enemies

Love one another as I have loved you

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your strength, all your soul and all your mind.

I think that pretty well covers it, don’t you?

Pastor and theologian Adam Hamilton says it slightly differently:

“I think Jesus knew that if he commanded his disciples to “love the sinner,” they would begin looking at other people more as sinners than as neighbors. And that, inevitably, would lead to judgment. If I love you more as a sinner than as my neighbor, then I am bound to focus more on your sin. I will start looking for all the things that are wrong with you. And perhaps, without intending it, I will begin thinking of our relationship like this: “You are a sinner, but I graciously choose to love you anyway.” If that sounds a little puffed up, self-righteous, and even prideful to you, then you have perceived accurately.”[1]

So let’s talk about the second half of this phrase: “hate the sin.”

While the first part was largely a question of identity, this is more a question of action. As we’ve said here before, you can love someone absolutely to death and still not appreciate their behavior. Anyone who has parented a child or trained a dog knows exactly what I’m talking about.

This particular phrase, though, comes from a verse in Romans 12, which contains the phrase: “hate what is evil.”

This is yet another example of what happens when you take Scripture out of context, however, because here’s what the full verse says:

“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.”

If you go and read the whole chapter, you’ll notice that the writer is speaking mostly about hating what is evil and holding fast to what is good in ourselves. Don’t feed the worst parts of yourself, he says, but invest your energy and your life in the gifts and passions that bring out the good in you.

This lines up more easily with what Jesus says in his Sermon on the Mount: don’t judge one another, but worry about the 2×4 stuck in your own eye before you worry about the eyelash in your neighbor’s eye. (That’s the Pastor Sarah Paraphrase version.)

Pastor Adam Hamilton reminds us, the gospels make a big deal out of the fact that “Jesus spent time with drunkards, prostitutes, thieves, the occasional adulterer, traitors to their own people, and countless others who undoubtedly had impure thoughts, cheated on their taxes, and committed a variety of crimes. He routinely broke bread with them, healed them, and even called them to be his disciples. Yet we never hear Jesus say to them, ‘I love you, but I hate your sin.’ When Jesus speaks to sinful people, he doesn’t talk about their sin but about God’s forgiveness.”[2]

Again: most of us don’t need reminding that we’re messed-up people. The reminder we need is that God’s grace covers us messy people, too.

In fact, the only times Jesus really calls folks out in the gospels is when they’re absolutely convinced they are in the right – that they’re perfect and sinless – even though they’re doing great harm to God’s people. And every time, those people are the religious leaders of the day, who have power and privilege and a platform to do so much good, and still manage to mess it up.

“Love the sinner, hate the sin” can be used with the best of intentions – to remind ourselves that even the messiest among us are worthy of love.

But if we’re really, deeply honest, I think we Christians mostly use it when we want to feel better about ourselves and take someone else down a notch or three. It allows us to keep a safe distance, thinking that we can love someone without being affected by their lives and their choices.

But that’s not how relationship works. Jesus knew that full well – he knew it when he flipped tables in the Temple, he knew it when he offered living water to the woman at the well, he knew it when he healed and he knew it every time the person on the other side of the table had no idea what he was trying to say.

True relationship, true vulnerability, requires that we get close enough to risk getting hurt. Jesus came into the world not to condemn it – not to yell at us to get our stuff together – but to save it. To save us. To save our neighbors and our friends and to redeem all of the mess we share.

All of this, he did in love.

So let’s skip the ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ and go straight to what Jesus really did show us and tell us: “love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, with all of your strength and with all of your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.”

[1] Hamilton, Adam. Half Truths (pp. 151-152). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Hamilton, Adam. Half Truths (p. 156). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.