Thursday, January 23, 2014

Sinners and sin

The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence (Ps. 11:5)

"Love the sinner, hate the sin" (One Evangelical cliche)

It is typically said within Evangelical Christianity that we should love the sinner, but hate the sin. On the surface, it sounds right, for Christ loved the world to save it, so should we love people who are made in the Image of God. From this Evangelical piety we have the Evangelical praxis of interaction with fellow believers, and those outside the Church. While certain more wicked sins do provoke natural revulsion, Evangelicals in general try and struggle to love people and share with them the Gospel of Christ that they might believe and be saved. And to a certain extent, all such actions are laudable manifestations of godliness, if they have indeed arose from true faith in Christ.

The problem with Evangelical piety is not that it is totally wrong, but at certain critical places there is a slight but significant shift away from what is taught in Scriptures. The downside of such bite-sized cliches is that it truncates biblical truth concerning the matter. With regards to this particular cliche, it affects one's view of God and His relation with mankind, and this in turn effect a difference in the worship of believers, and how they deal with sin within and without the congregation.

The problem with this particular way of understanding is that it makes no sense of the biblical data in places like the Psalms, particularly the imprecatory psalms. For God only hates sin, but not the sinner, right? Thus, God only hate this "thing" out there called sin. This way of understanding God is congruent with a God without any real wrath, with the Old Testament being relegated to second-class status. Understandably, Evangelicals have no idea what to do when faced with passages in Scripture about God's wrath against sinners. One doesn't have to read very long in the Old Testament to see the fury of God breaking out against those who violated even a small part of the law, as the issue with the Sabbath-breaker proved (Num. 15:32-6). It is no wonder therefore that many Evangelicals feel the need to apologize for God in the Old Testament, and of course they don't sing the Psalms.

Such a view also results in an inability to deal properly with sin both within and without the church. Since sin is this abstract "thing" out there that somehow infects the person, what does one do when one faces sinners? The first alternative is to love them, while somehow convincing oneself that we are not condoning the sin, and hopefully one will someday get around to telling them that what they are doing is sin. This is the path followed by many an evan-jellyfish and is almost the default setting of almost all Christians. The second alternative is the path threaded by Fundamentalists, where sinners become and now ARE sin itself, since one must hate the sin and sins are committed by sinners. In the first path followed by the majority, sin is almost as it were tolerated to some extent. In the second path, let's just say that it is highly unlikely that the Gospel message can be heard in such settings.

The problem with that Evangelical cliche lies at its foundation. On the surface, everything seems rather fine, although one just might perceive something odd about the statement. The root issue is a failure to understand sin as an ethical issue, not an ontological or epistemic issue. Ethical issues means sin is relational, not in the ontological sense of "relations," but in the ethical personal sense. Since sin is ethical, then persons are involved. The sinner sinned against another person. Sin is not some abstract entity out there, but deals with persons. Remove one of the persons, and that ethical relation ceases to be present. One cannot after all sin against for example a car, neither can water sin against anyone. Sin is always personal, and thus one cannot separate sin from the sinner and/or the one sinned against.

The idea of "loving the sinner, but hating the sin" thus makes zero sense in this scheme. How does one hate "sin," since sin doesn't exist as a "thing"? Yes, one can personifies sin, or think of sin along the lines of its effects, but that is not the same as saying that sin has independent ontological existence! Thus, while the concept hints at the truth, it distorts it as much as it clarifies.

Psalms 11:5 states God's hatred of the wicked and those who love violence. Unless one wants to be a Marcionite, one must concede that God in some sense must hate the wicked; there is simply no way to get around that plain teaching short of attacking the divine inspiration of Scripture. When we think of sin in terms of ethical personal relations, then navigating this thorny topic becomes easier. God does hate the sinner, for surely it is sinners who sin! Yet, at the same time, God loves His creatures. The only way forward is to delineate the senses of how love and hate function. God loves sinners by virtue of their creatureliness. God hates sinners by virtue and because of their sin.

In place of the Evangelical cliche, a more biblical manner of expression is to say that we should love people because of their creation by God, and hate sinners in their sins. This of course is not as rememberable, and parodoxically neither is it easier to grasp or to practice. But since when did God promise the Christian Life to be easy? In this formula, love and hate, Creation and the Fall, cut through any and all unregenerate humans. There is no way we can view people as somehow a victim of "Sin," neither can we view people as constitutively little different from the Devil. The same person is simultaneously both loved and hated, in different senses.

In practice, holding to such a view with all its corollaries would solve the practical Marcionism in much of Christianity. In regards to interaction with people, the first benefit it would give is to force people to be less self-righteous. Sin is not something external, some infestation that believers are cured of. The second benefit is in dealings with unbelievers. It forces Christians to be at one time more unloving, and yet more loving. God hates sinners in their sin, so should we. God loves sinners because there are creatures in His image. So should we. We are called to love sinners more, and hate sinners more. The problem with both Evangelical and Fundamentalist approaches is that they love too little, and they hate too little. That which ought to be loved we hate; that we ought to hate we love. We must exhibit a holy hatred for sinners in their sin, yet show them the love of Christ offered in His grace. So in the analogous example of church discipline, there must be real discipline against the offender, yet to those who repent, FULL forgiveness must be offered. We must hate more, and love more.

Love the sinner, hate the sin? Almost right. But rather, we ought to love the person and hate the sinner in his sin. An almost imperceptible difference, but one with real practical ramifications. Just like much of Evangelicalism, this cliche is very close to the biblical truth, yet at a critical joint, a slight divergence in theory results in greater errors in practice.

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