I have often thought about this saying and I think the intention behind it is pure. I think we say and hear this so often because we want to be a community who emphasizes the overwhelming goodness, faithfulness, and grace of God. However, like many cliches, I do not know if they are helpful when all is said and done because I think the tendency can be some sort of attempt to remove sin from us and place it outside of ourselves so that when we sin, we claim it as uncharacteristic of us. However, sin is not just something that we simply partake in, it is naturally who we are at the core. Paul clearly states this in the first several chapters of Romans. He states that men have failed to honor God (1:21), they have suppressed the truth of who He is, and they have exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images (1:23). For this, Paul says the wrath of God is on them (2:6-9).
In addition, if sin truly is something that is outside of us and rather than something we are, then why does Isaiah respond this way when he is confronted with the holiness of God: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people with unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts! (Is. 6:5)” Isaiah never claims that his sin is simply something he does, but instead recognizes that he is ruined.
Then there are passages such as these that we must wrestle with:
“For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evil doers.” Psalm 5:4, 5
“The Lord tests the righteous but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.” Psalm 11:5
“But you, O God, will cast them down into the pit of destruction; men of blood and treachery shall not live out half their days. But I will trust in you.” Psalm 55:23
Now the tendency might be for us to say, “Come on now, this is talking about really wicked people. The type of people who murder, rape, and commit horrible atrocious acts. However, apart from Christ, everyone is in league with the worst type of sinner. Apart from the redemptive work of Christ, I am a child and slave of Satan and God’s wrath rests on me just as it does on any other wicked person.
My point in bringing this up is not so I can correct people when they use the phrase, “God loves the sinner, but hates the sin.” I have no interest in being a theological nit pick. However, if we so quickly dismiss God’s hate toward us as evil doers, then we miss out on a truly beautiful aspect of the Gospel. John Calvin, citing St. Augustine, describes this in The Institutes of the Christian Religion:
“God’s love,” says [Augustine], “is incomprehensible and unchangeable. For it was not after we were reconciled to him through the blood of his Son that he began to love us. Rather, he has loved us before the world was created, that we also might be his sons along with his only-begotten Son—before we became anything at all. The fact that we were reconciled through Christ’s death must not be understood as if his Son reconciled us to him that he might now begin to love those whom he hated. Rather, we have already been reconciled to him who loves us, with whom we were enemies on account of sin. The apostle will testify whether I am speaking truth: ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ [Rom 5:8]. Therefore, he loved us even when we practiced enmity toward him and committed wickedness. Thus in a marvelous and divine way he loved us even when he hated us. For he hated us for what we were that he had not made; yet because our wickedness and not entirely consumed his handiwork, he knew how, at the same time, to hate in each one of us what we had made, and to love what he had made (Book 2, Ch. 16, Sec. 4).”
Does God hate sin? Yes. Does God hate sinners? Yes. Does God love sinners? Yes! Do not so quickly dismiss the hatred of God toward the sinner because in his hatred we see the depth of His love. Only at the cross could God’s hatred for us and love for us meet.”He made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).”