Jesus once said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44). Struggling with practical ways to live this out in a world full of vile and wicked deeds, modern Christians coined a well-known phrase: “Hate the sin and love the sinner.” That seems to be the only way that we legitimately hate the things that God hates (like sin - Proverbs 6:26-29), and yet love as He commanded us to love.
The problem is that not everything I’ve just written in the last paragraph is exactly true.
Let’s start with the notion that God hates sin. It turns out that it’s not really easy to find a passage in the Bible that directly says this. There’s no doubt that God does actually hate sin, but if you look for a particular verse that says this you’re going to end up finding a whole lot of Scripture passages that say that God hates the sinner because of the sin. Even that Proverbs passage I cited earlier says that God hates a false witness (not merely false witnessing) and the one who sows discord among brothers (not simply the discord that was sown). And if you want a more direct statement, try Psalm 5:5: “The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.”
So the Bible unapologetically makes the statement that God hates evildoers and false witnesses and those who sow discord...in other words, sinners. That’s kind of embarrassing, isn’t it? Maybe we should hide those verses! But if we are going to keep them, then maybe we can say that it’s okay for God to hate sinners because He offers them the Gospel anyway (which is actually super-loving in spite of the hate, however that works), or because He is the sovereign potter and has every right over His clay to make a creature just for the hating (if you’re of a more reformed, Romans 9-reading bent). At any rate, just because He does it doesn’t mean that we are supposed to.
But then we read the words of the ‘man after God’s own heart’ who wrote praise songs to God under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that include lines like this one:
”Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me! They speak against you with malicious intent; your enemies take your name in vain. Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.” (Psalm 139:19-22)
He also wrote a beautiful psalm that asked the question, “O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill?” And guess what one of the answers was?
“[A man] in whose eyes a vile person is despised, but who honors those who fear the Lord.” (Psalm 15:4)
It doesn’t sound like David was “hating the sin and loving the sinner” when he said that he hates those who hate the Lord (this word ‘those’ refers to the actual people doing the hating of the Lord and not the hate itself), and loathes those who rise up against Him. And he was writing very clearly when he said that the righteous man who could approach the Lord and dwell in His house must despise the vile person (not just the quality that made him or her vile).
I came across this idea again while reading through 2 Chronicles 19. At the beginning of that chapter, Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, had just returned to Jerusalem after traveling to help Israel’s King Ahab in his war with Syria. Jehoshaphat was a godly king, but Ahab was as bad or worse than all of the other wicked kings of the northern kingdom of Israel. And when Jehoshaphat got back home - following the death of Ahab in battle - the seer Jehu came to visit him with a prophetic announcement:
“Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the Lord? Because of this, wrath has gone out against you from the Lord.” (2 Chronicles 19:2)
Now wait just a minute! This just keeps getting worse and worse! So the Bible says that God hates sinners (not just the sin), then some Psalms state that the hatred of the wicked person is a good quality in the man of God, but now God is actually exhibiting His wrath against His people when they “love those who hate the Lord”? How can this be?! We weren’t raised this way at all!
It would be helpful at this point to go back and more closely examine the instructions that Jesus gave in the Sermon on the Mount about how we are to treat our enemies. Again, He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Let’s start by eliminating the easy part of this. We know without a doubt that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:31), so we can shorten the problem areas of Jesus’ instruction to just a couple of factors: 1) “You have heard it said...hate your neighbor,” and 2) “Love your enemies”.
First, where had the people heard it said that we should hate our enemies? That’s actually not a statement that the Bible makes. Very much the opposite in fact. In Exodus 23:5, this law was given: “If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with him.” That’s actually a direct command to love your enemy (the one who hates you) smack dab in the middle of the Old Testament Law. When Jesus said, “But I say to you, Love your enemies”, He wasn’t overwriting the former law of hate with a new law of love. He was correcting a misapplication of passages like Psalm 139:19-22 that had been twisted around to be about your personal enemies rather than God’s enemies.
You see, there’s actually a difference. Your enemy is someone who has directly hurt you in some way. Maybe they keep parking their car on your lawn. Maybe they stole your TV. Maybe they cut in front of you in line at the Golden Corral. Such a one has offended you personally, and now you have to decide how to act toward him or her. Jesus commands us to love this person, and repay their evil with good. If they slap you on the cheek, turn the other one.
So what about all of that hate that we read about? That was directed toward God’s enemies.His enemies are those who hate Him, and those who flagrantly and unrepentantly transgress His good and holy commands.
Now sometimes God’s enemies and our enemies are one and the same. The God-hater living next door might let his dog relieve itself all over your yard. But as far as his evil toward you is considered, you should repay his evil with good. Bake that family a batch of cookies, and use it as an opportunity to share the Gospel with them. In doing this, we imitate God who is merciful and gracious towards those who live in opposition to His commands, to those who do not love Him even though He gave them life.
But when it comes to those who organize God-hating marches, or those who run for public office on a platform of destroying any semblance of godliness in our nation, how are we to think about those people? They are not our neighbors (in that they are not in geographical nearness to us), and they have not set themselves up as our personal enemies (they have not thrown bricks through our windows). They have set themselves up as enemies of God, and our response to that should not be to rush to their side and offer them bottles of cold water when it gets hot outside (thinking that we may somehow tempt them to take a look at the Gospel). We should not be offering to have them come and speak in our churches under the auspices of having ‘honest conversation’ or any such thing. The godly and biblical response to enemies of God is a good and proper hatred. We should not offer them aid (like Jehoshaphat did with Ahab). In fact, we should work toward their downfall, publicly decrying their evils, working against their policy decisions, seeking to eliminate all of their influence from the society that God has put under our care, of which we are supposed to be making disciples.
To be sure there is a fine line here between showing love to our personal enemies and feeling hatred toward the wicked enemies of God. But there is a line. It would be an enormous mistake to discount the great amount of Scriptural witness on this issue. If we do not see a line that needs to be drawn, then we will be self-destructively lopsided in how we deal with sin that confronts us. Either we will be driven by personal vendetta and revenge against those who hurt us, or we will coddle the iniquitous as they destroy society around around us, mocking our God the whole way down.