Slogans are memorable, simple summaries of truths that are often quite complex. By design, therefore, they are not meant to convey every nuance of a particular topic. Unfortunately, this makes them liable to misunderstanding and misuse. A case in point is the saying that I want to look at in this article, “God loves the sinner but hates the sin.” Several puritans would have embraced this saying as they did in fact speak in these terms, but not in the way many might use it today. I will discuss the work of several puritans and then conclude with some summary comments.
Obadiah Sedgwick, a noted preacher and member of the Westminster Assembly, appealed to a two-fold love of God in order to answer the objection that God’s eternal love for his people rendered Christ’s work of reconciliation unnecessary (“Reconciliation needs not amongst friends, but between enemies.”). First, there is God’s love of benevolence (amor benevolentia). By this love God wishes and intends to do us good and it is compatible with God’s anger and wrath towards us due to our sins. God was “wroth with us for our sins, yet did so far love us, as to give us Jesus Christ for the pacification of that wrath.” Second, there is God’s love of friendship (amor amicitiae). This love is incompatible with God’s wrath, was procured by the death of Christ, and consists in being accepted by God “into a league of favour and kindness.” God, therefore, loved us with an eternal love of benevolence but he did not love us with a love of friendship until we were converted and united to Christ. What is important about this two-fold love of God is that we see how God can both love and hate the unjustified sinner at the same time. God benevolently loves sinners who are “in a condition of wrath.”
Samuel Bolton, a member of the Westminster Assembly from 1647 to 1649, argued that sin makes sinners who are outside of Christ (“under the Law”) the objects of God’s hatred, whereas sin makes believers the objects of God’s pity. This means that in the case of the unregenerate, God hates both the sin and the sinner, but with respect to the regenerate, God hates the sin but pities and loves the sinner. The reason for the difference is that sin in the unbeliever is his nature but it is only a disease in the believer. Bolton wrote:
Men, you know, hate poison in a toad, but pity it in a man. In the one it is their nature, in the other their disease: Sin in a wicked man is as poison in a toad; God hates it and him, it’s his nature; but sin in a child is like poison in a man; God pities him, he pities the Saints for sins and infirmities, he hates the wicked. It’s the ones nature, and the others disease…In a wicked man God hates both sin and sinner, but here [in the case of believers] he hates the sin, though he pities and loves the poor sinner, etc. He is displeased with sin, though he pardon sin in Christ.
John Davenant, a British delegate to the Synod of Dort, made similar comments in his book on justification. In response to the argument that God can’t justify a person who is still tainted with sin because God hates sin and must punish the person in whom it is found, Davenant essentially said that God hates the sin but loves the justified sinner. God hates the sin that remains in the justified and expresses that hatred by gradually eradicating it from the believer by his grace and Spirit. But God does not hate them (their “persons”) because “Christ by his blood hath expiated their guilt.” Thomas Goodwin echoed these sentiments when he wrote, “And he, loving your persons, and hating only the sin, his hatred shall all fall, and that only upon the sin, to free you of it by its ruin and destruction.”
God’s relationship to sinners, as even this brief discussion suggests, is quite complex. At the very least, we need to distinguish between persons (believer and unbeliever), and types of love (benevolent and friendship) in order to properly understand how God relates to us (for a nuanced discussion on this saying go here. This is why the statement “God loves the sinner but hates the sin” as a general blanket statement for all persons is not the most helpful. It is, however, helpful, at least for several puritans when it comes to God’s relationship with his redeemed people. God loves them and will not punish them, but he does hate their sin and will eventually fully cleanse them of it.
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Previous Posts in this Series
"What would Jesus do?"
"If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all"
"God won't give you more than you can handle"