This cliche has been the standard response of the church to issues such as gay marriage. It attempts to articulate that while the church opposes sinful actions that does not mean we oppose people in the same way. Its significance is not that it sounds reasonable, but that it is possible at all. How could it be that the sin of a person can been opposed, hated even, yet the person can be deeply loved at the same time by the same person? It is possible because Christianity is true. Let me try to show you how.
Christians believe that all human beings are created by God and endowed with the image of God. They are valuable in an objective sense since they are valued by God. Human beings were not always sinful. Adam and Eve were sinless before their rebellion. All human beings are now subject to fallen conditions, rendering them sinful, capable of evil. Being sinful and being valued are coherently conjoined in the Christian view of human beings. Being human is not necessarily connected to being sinful. Human beings were not always sinful, Jesus Christ is human and without sin and the Christian looks forward to the day when she is without sin in the future resurrection of the dead.
Christians believe that God sent Jesus Christ, his Son, to pay the price for human sin and that some people, by believing in Christ, are saved, made right with God. Such a salvation does not render a person sinless, but considered righteous in the sight of God due to the righteousness of Christ being “imputed” to the believer. We trust that one day God will deal with sin once and for all. We shall be sinless in our glorified bodies and evil will be purged from creation.
Such a worldview gives us the resources to hate evil, hate sin, yet love people. First, all human beings are made in the image of God and worthy of dignity. Even the worst sinner retains human dignity and is worthy of just treatment. Laws about murder, rape and torture derive from such an idea. This is also the idea that underlies Christian opposition to abortion.
Even though all human beings are fallen and subject to sin, human beings are not essentially sinful. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable to love human beings and yet hate evil, hate sin.
Furthermore, the redemptive aspect of Christian belief is important because becoming sinless is not a condition for hope in salvation. Jesus’ sinlessness and our faith in him is what supplies hope for the Christian. Consequently, even when a fellow believer sins this does not lower the dignity that person is to be treated with. In fact, church discipline has, as its goal, the restoration of a believer. We don’t have undue expectations of perfection in this age.
Finally, the hope of a final end of history in which all evil is removed from creation and condemned to hell means that Christians look to a time when they themselves will be sinless, perfected. This hope means we can value others in our present age, knowing that one day all will be made right and justice will be fully established in all creation.
Hating sin and loving the sinner, in that light, has purpose and is meaningful. For one thing, loving all human beings not only because they are made in the image of God, but also because they may repent and believe in Christ, provides the opportunity to see fellow sinful human beings redeemed. Second, loving sinful human beings with the hope that all will one day be made right in the world means that loving people and hating sin can be done in the knowledge that sin will one day be gone. This is not a vague hope, but a certain future. The Christian worldview supplies such motivation. Others do not.
Some clarity in what a Christian means by love should be noted at this point. Love does not mean sloppy feeling. Love also does not mean always doing what a person wants (“You’ll do it if you love me”). Love for all human beings means a valuing of human beings due to their being creations of God with dignity, carrying the image of God. This might be practiced in many ways. For example, a Christian should be gentle with those who do not believe in Christ (1 Pet 3:15). It might mean going out of one’s way to serve another human being or working to care for the needs of others. Christians are deeply involved in caring for the world’s poor, helping the hurt and opposing injustice. Love also refers to how we think in terms of legislation. Most of us support pro-life policies due to our desire to preserve life, even the smallest of human lives. We oppose euthanasia on the same grounds. It also means a compassion for people, even for our enemies.
When it comes to sexuality we oppose same sex marriage not because we hate gay people, but because we think that God has clearly defined marriage in his word as between one man and one woman for life and for childrearing. And let me be clear: sexual sin, the use of one another’s bodies for pleasure without the context of the marriage relationship, is deeply sinful. Porn, promiscuity, lust, licentiousness, are all sinful, they are self-loving, pleasure-loving acts played out with people who are guilty before God.
Finally, I am a sinner. I should hate my own sin. Yet this does not lead to paralysis in thinking about sin in general. In our age of moral equivalence we think it impossible to deal with sin in the world because we are all too aware of our own. It produces a false humility – “who am I to say anything? I am just as bad.” However, it is perfectly reasonable, give the truth of Christianity, to be a sinner and oppose sin in the world.
In contrast, consider naturalistic materialism. Human beings emerged through an unguided and purposeless process of evolution. All human beings are highly evolved animals with capacity for reasoning, complex emotional states and highly functional motor skills. All human beings appear to have the capacity to do bad things, use their capacities to harm others and go against intuitively derived “rules.” It is possible, if improbable, that human beings may evolve to such a state that they are able to live without doing anything bad. This may, in part, be possible through the adaptation of what is considered bad. Since what is considered bad is, in the main, a result of the construction of moral agreement and much less the observance of any “moral law.”
While I am sure some naturalistic materialists would alter some of these features the point remains: it is not possible to provide the worldview resources in naturalistic materialism to both love people and hate sin. For a start, responsibility for sin is diminished to the extent that the human state we find ourselves in is due to the process by which we came to be how we are. To whom exactly do we turn to apportion blame? For many materialists this poses a quandary for the law court. If a human being is who he is due to the process by which he came to be then it is difficult to find the moral ground to convict him, at least with the same sort of outrage. This has led to the oft repeated pleas for leniency due to genes and upbringing. And without a good worldview resource for guilt or shame it seems sin loses the ingredient that is suitable for hatred.
Within such a worldview human beings have capacities for high achievement in both burglary and in baseball. Delineating the worth of such an action becomes a matter of consensus, the current state of our evolution. It is possible for human beings, as they evolve, to change their views over what is morally right and what is morally wrong. And, if we are purely physical things, such changes are to be expected since our brains (at least the part of the brain that makes moral judgements) presumably change along with everything else.
Naturalistic materialism appears to lower the bar of evil to some extent, at least to blunt hate to the status of extreme preference.
More problematic for the naturalistic materialism is the apparent inability to separate badness from humanness. I can’t see any way in which human beings could obtain innate dignity and be sinful at the same time if naturalistic materialism is true. If we are a purely material thing then we are identical to our actions. Our identity is found only in our temporal existence as material creatures. And if our existence includes both good and bad then that is who we are to the core. Innate dignity must either include sin or there is no such dignity.
I should say that just because hating sin and loving sinners is possible, because Christianity is true, does not mean we are very good at it. I fall short all the time (because I am a sinner). This fact does not lower my confidence in the truth of Christianity only in my own ability to live up to the standards prescribed by it. But God has not left the believer helpless. The Holy Spirit is who we turn to to enable both our love for others and our hatred of sin.