Does God love sinners?

Romans 5:8, Psalm 5:5

11 April 2010

Woodley Baptist Church

Evening service

Don Carson's little book, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, is very helpful on this subject.


The verse I want us to look at this evening is verse 8 of the reading: God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.ref

This is a verse about God's love and, if we understand it rightly, it is truly, deeply shocking.

The shock lies not so much in the fact of Jesus' death, but in the timing of Jesus' death. It was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us. In the words of verse 6, Christ died for the ungodlyref.

No first-century hearer could fail to be astonished by this! Yet, I sense today, that we fail to share in the astonishment. We fail to be shocked because we simply don't grasp what it means to be a sinner in God's eyes. We're more like, "D'uh, who else would Jesus die for?"

As evidence I bring the familiar cliché "God hates the sin but loves the sinner" . This saying has become quite a commonplace in churches. I'm sure you've heard it; perhaps you've used it. But to what extent is it true?

My argument is that while we continue unthinkingly to say "God hates the sin but loves the sinner" , we will never really be shocked by Romans 5 verse 8, and therefore that we will never really understand the true depths of God's love.

God hates the sinner

So, does God hate the sin but love the sinner? Before we get to our verse, I want to take us on a substantial detour to look at three reasons why I believe this saying is unhelpful. We're going to be visiting a lot of Bible on the way. Don't feel you need to look up every verse with me, but it is worth turning now to Psalm 5 [p.544].

1. The Bible explicitly states that God hates sinners

This is said many times and in many ways, but we'll just visit one to make the point.

Psalm 5 is written by David, and is a double-decker sandwich. He begins with himself, verses 1-3, then he discusses the wicked, verses 4-6. He returns to himself in 7 and 8, then the wicked again in 9 and 10. And the final verses are about the righteous in general, including himself.

When discussing the wicked, he begins in verse 4, You are not a God who takes pleasure in evil; with you the wicked cannot dwellref. This we know: this is the "God hates the sin" bit. So far, so good.

Now look at verse 5, The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrongref. The implications are spelt out in verse 6, You destroy those who tell lies; bloodthirsty and deceitful men the Lord abhorsref. I looked up "abhor" in my dictionary; it's not in common use these days. It means "to regard something with disgust and hatred".

So, God hates all who do wrong. He destroys, he abhors. What do you make of that?

While we are in Psalm 5, it's interesting that, in Romans chapter 3, Paul quotes Psalm 5 verse 9 as part of his arguments that everyone in the world is sinful, Jews and Gentiles alike. When David says You hate all who do wrong, apparently he does mean everybody, not just some small set of really bad sinners.

And in verse 10 we find the reason for the enmity with God: Banish them for their many sins, for they have rebelled against youref. The sinner's fundamental problem is that he or she has rebelled against God. They have made themselves God's enemies.

2. God punishes sinners, not their sins.

If God hates sins but loves sinners, then why does he punish sinners and not just their sins?

And God will punish sinners. Listen to some of what the Bible has to say about this, and see how it is the sinner himself or herself who is to be condemned. I'm just going to read some New Testament verses without further commentary.

In every case, it is the sinner himself or herself against whom God's wrath is enacted. God's wrath is God's settled anger against those who offend his holiness, and one day it will be poured out. God punishes sinners, not their sins.

"But, Ben," you might say, "you can punish your daughters when they do wrong, and yet still love them." Yes, this is true, and the Bible teaches that good parental discipline is actually an expression of love.

But there is a world of difference between parental discipline and the expressions of God's wrath in the passages I read. God's wrath is not corrective parental discipline. It is deserved judicial punishment.

3. Sin cannot be separated from the sinner

Behind the saying "God hates the sin but loves the sinner" is an assumption that sin and sinner can be separated. That we can draw a line between "who we are" and "what we do".

So we tend to explain the bad things people do by appealing to external causes. The persistently unfaithful husband can't help it: he has the gene for promiscuity (I think that's the Y chromosome!). The bad behaviour of the juvenile delinquent is attributed to his childhood in a broken home: an abusive father, a drug-addicted mother. The judge in the original James Bulger case, recently in the news again, suggested "violent video films" might be at least partly to blame — an external cause.

Actually, we've done this ever since the Garden of Eden, where Adam protested The woman you put here with me — she gave me some fruit from the treeref. And Eve said The serpent deceived meref. The serpent, of course, didn't have a leg to stand on.

The subtext here is that people do bad things not because they are bad people, but because they are victims of bad circumstances. This is what we tend to do: we try to separate the sin from the sinner.

But the Bible won't let us get away with this. The Bible's view is that people are always morally responsible, whatever their circumstances. We can't separate sin from sinner.

Hear what Jesus says. Mark chapter 7, What comes out of a man is what makes him 'unclean.' For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside...ref

In Bible language, the heart is the core of our being. It is the essence of who we are. So, what we do comes out of what we are. If we do evil, it is because we are evil. Sinful acts are simply the outworking of sinful hearts. We cannot separate sin from sinner.

It would be odd to say "I hate the heat but I love the heater" : the two are inseparable; heaters heat. But that's analogous to what we are saying in the phrase "God hates the sin but loves the sinner" : the two are inseparable.

Imagine for a moment a mouldy orange. We could imagine a lovely juicy fruit with a bit of green on the surface of the skin that could simply be wiped off. We can talk about hating the mould but loving the orange.

Now imagine the same orange a week later: a festering mass of green fur. Rotten to the core. There is no boundary between the orange and the mould. Every part of the orange is rotten with decay. All we can say now is, we hate the mouldy orange. This is how the Bible portrays us: rotten to the core. Our sin is not some surface slime, separate from us, that can be wiped away. Our sin comes right from our hearts; we are rotten to the core. Jeremiah 17 verse 9, The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cureref.

What can we conclude from all this? Well, the Bible drives us to the conclusion that God hates sinners.

In God's eyes, we are not like cute little babies who simply need our moral nappies changing. In God's eyes we are utterly repulsive, repugnant and revolting. We are rotten with sin. Rotten to our hearts. Rotten to the core. We are under his wrath. All we are good for is destruction.

Coming back finally to Romans chapter 5, all this would have been axiomatic for the first century hearer. They would have no issue with the fact that God hates sinners. They knew all about God's holiness. The big deal for them would be accepting that they themselves were counted as sinners before God. But that sinners are beyond the pale as far as God is concerned: no problem.

God loves the sinner

This then is the shock of Romans chapter 5 verse 8: God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.ref

We were ungodly, verse 6. We were sinners, verse 8. We were God's enemies, verse 10, echoing Psalm 5: we were in rebellion against God. And that is when Christ died for us.

This is breath-taking! There was nothing lovable or attractive about us. In God's eyes we were revolting, repulsive creatures. Not a single thing about us deserved anything but condemnation. Everything about us provoked God's hatred. We were rightly under his wrath. Yet he chose to love us.

Rather than unleash his wrath on us who deserve every bit of it, God chose to bear it himself in the form of his son.

This is it; this is the essence of the gospel. God sacrificed his Son for those he hated. God loved his enemies. Jesus died for sinners, like you and me.


If you are a believer in Jesus then this truth underpins your whole life. Christ died for you while you were still a sinner. God foreknew that there would be nothing attractive about you; that you would be under his wrath, repulsive to him; that you would do nothing whatsoever that pleased him in any way. Yet he chose to love you.

In the book of Romans, it is this truth underpins our Christian assurance (verse 10). It is this truth that underpins our joy (verse 11). This truth gives us a right horror of sin in our lives and in the church (chapters 6 and 7). It is the ground of our comfort in Jesus in the famous passage in chapter 8. It is the drive that impels us to tell others about Jesus (chapter 10). It keeps us humble (chapter 11). It shows us how to love others (chapter 12). It is the foundation of our unity in the church (chapter 14).

All this and more is at stake if we begin to deny the truth that God hates sinners before he loves them! See what we lose if we soften the message that outside Christ we are under God's wrath.

In particular, we lose an understanding of love. In the death of Jesus, God shows us how to love others. God didn't love lovable people: he loved repulsive people. He loved the objects of his hatred. He loved his enemies. He loved you and me, while we were still sinners. This is how we must love others. However repulsive and repellent the person, you are called to love them, because God first loved you like that.

If you are not a believer in Jesus, then this is both a message of hope for you and a message of warning.

It is a message of hope because it is so clear that you don't need to be good to know the love of God. You may have lived as his enemy all your life. You may feel inadequate, sinful, unclean, undeserving — and yes, you are all these things, and so am I. But God demonstrates his love for you in this: while you are still a sinner Jesus died for you. You don't need to be good: you need only to trust in Jesus who died and rose again.

But there is also a warning. I don't need to spell it out: I did that earlier at length. Simply put, God hates sinners, and that means everyone whom he has not made clean. If you have not trusted Jesus then you are God's enemy, and that is a very foolish fight to pick.