Most Christians today, in seeking to follow after our Savior’s injunction to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44), tend to deeply emphasize love. Unfortunately, they do so to the point of maudlin sentimentalism. This is reflected by the modern praise bands with their sappy Jesus-is-my-boyfriend songs, the effeminacy of Christian men in refusing to stand up for truth, and the sick pacifism which would obligate a man to watch the rape of his wife and daughters rather than fight back. It is tragically pervasive in the church today.
Usually fueling this idea is the phrase often quoted by Christians, “Hate the sin and love the sinner.” It would be permissible for Christians to accept a qualified form of the phrase, but the modern advocacy of it is unqualified and radical. It is of no help to such Christians that the phrase cannot be located in Scripture, but it is especially problematic when we understand that the originator of the commandment was not even a Christian, but the pagan Mahatma Gandhi. This is usually, though irrationally, justified by the supposition that Gandhi was a “good” unbeliever, but even that idea is mere propaganda. As such, it would behoove us to see the implications of this command and, more importantly, to apprehend the biblical doctrine on love and hatred.
Tied with the idea of “hate the sin and love the sinner” is unconditional love. This follows necessarily because, in making such a chasm between the person and his actions, the phrase demands that we love someone no matter what he does: we must love him unconditionally. In some respects, this can be a noble Christian goal. For instance, even when it comes to very evil unbelievers, we should still hope that they repent and believe in Christ. After all, St. Paul himself was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1), consumed in unregeneracy, and he was nevertheless brought to spiritual life. Even then, however, such a loving desire for repentance would not be genuinely unconditional, since there is an unforgivable sin (Mark 3:28-40; cf. Heb. 10:26-27). This should be clearer when we recognize that there is not a clear sense in which we are supposed to love Satan or his angels, or even the damned. They all have incorrigibly opted for perdition, and have therefore fulfilled a condition which requires a significant withholding of love.
We can also speak of love in the sense of supreme adoration, that kind of love due to God alone. It might be this kind of love that Jesus had in mind when He explicitly said, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26; cf. Matt. 10:37). Yet, Jesus’s statement goes even further than the modest claim that we ought not to worship our family members. He is also claiming that disharmony and bitterness can occur for His followers, even in that wonderful sphere of familial affection and solidarity. “For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household’” (Matt. 10:35-36).
While it is obvious that we should not unconditionally love anyone in the sense of worshiping him—in fact, given that definition, there are no circumstances when we should “love” someone besides God—our Savior’s language in Luke 14:26 also states something else about unconditional love. He explicitly denies that we are to unconditionally love our own family members, and a fortiori He denies that we are to unconditionally love anyone. There always comes a point—there is always a certain condition to be fulfilled—when allegiance to our God requires some sort of strife, some breach of peace and harmony. “Those who forsake the law praise the wicked, but such as keep the law contend with them” (Prov. 28:4).
This is where we can see the evils of “hate the sin and love the sinner.” It results in an odious doctrine of unconditional love, a doctrine which stresses not a longsuffering desire for the repentance of evildoers—the only acceptable meaning of “unconditional love,” even though it is not strictly unconditional—but an alluring impulse for false amicability in the face of wickedness. It is against this false understanding of unconditional love that theologian R.J. Rushdoony wrote:
Unconditional love is a more revolutionary concept than any other doctrine of revolution. Unconditional love means the end of discrimination between good and evil, right and wrong, better and worse, friend and enemy, and all things else. Whenever anyone asks you to love unconditionally, they are asking you to surrender unconditionally to the enemy.1
Rushdoony’s wisdom here ties together two notions from above—the vast disconnect between persons and actions which such a view of “love” requires, and the disobedience to God displayed by loving His enemies. That is, if we claim to unconditionally love a person—to treat him cordially, amiably, and peacefully, no matter what he does—then that means we do not care if he commits sinful atrocities; we do not see any relation between his own actions and how we ought to treat him. This is metaphysical and ethical insanity, not to mention inconsistent with Scripture (1 Cor. 5:11; Matt. 18:17). As Rushdoony notes, to unconditionally love our enemies in this fashion is surrender; it is to allow the baneful influences of demons to go unfettered throughout society. Such an outlook is neglect of and disobedience to our King. It is a feigned love of sinners which is an actual love of sin: it is not biblical love. But this is what happens when we sever a man from his actions, as “hate the sin and love the sinner” requires. A different way of stating this is that such a view of love is in reality an indiscriminate niceness. Like animals, we make no discrimination between good and evil, but simply act as people-pleasers in order to maintain false unity and peace. God abhors this (Jer. 6:14; Gal. 1:10).
The connection between a sinner and his sin should be obvious when we consider that God punishes sinners in hell for their sin, not sin itself. Scripture expressly states that God hates sinners (e.g., Ps. 5:5; 7:11; 11:5), and accordingly He pours out His wrath upon them: sin and sinner are connected.2 Our dispositions should be geared in the same way; we should not believe in such a gaping divide between sinners and sin. This is why David, as an inspired psalmist, can proclaim, “Do I not hate them, O LORD, who hate You? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies” (Ps. 139:21-22). We are supposed to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44), but hate God’s enemies.3 Hence the usual assertion of “hate the sin and love the sinner,” with its unqualified and unclarified meaning, is a cowardly denial of our obligation to hate God’s enemies. It necessitates total societal surrender to antichrists. It is a venomous exhortation.
Our obligation to hate God’s enemies while loving our own enemies tends to result in a more complicated ethic, since these two categories can overlap and apply to the same people, requiring us to love people in some senses and hate the same people in different senses. In contrast, the ethical code of the sentimentalist will be that in all circumstances (unconditionally), we ought to be nice to others; in no circumstances should we refuse to be a doormat. But, of course, we can understand that ethical codes need to be neither simple nor simplistic. The ethical complexity introduced by a biblical conception of conditional love should help us to realize the splendor of God’s law, our feeble inability and unwillingness to keep it, and the perfection of our Savior to fulfill it in our stead. May His Spirit grant us the practical wisdom to discern how to manifest each disposition appropriately.
The Centrality of Love in Christianity
While it is clear that a sentimentalist conception of love is pestilential, it is nonetheless clear that love is central to Christianity. After all, if there were not biblical passages which emphasized love, then what would the sentimentalists twist to support their own perversions? We must therefore understand what it means to love the Lord and love our neighbor in light of our mandate to hate God’s enemies.
In the first place, it is crucial to understand that to love someone includes the fulfillment of our moral obligations, as defined in God’s law, with respect to him (Rom. 13:8-10). Some might object to this, arguing that love involves acting from the heart, rather than from some cold or mechanical sense of duty; but this poses a false dilemma. Part of God’s law regulates our emotional temperaments, or, in other words, it is our duty to act from the heart. When a husband displays sincere and tender affection for his wife, loving her as Christ loves His Church, he is also fulfilling his duty to do the same (Eph. 5:25). What would the alternative to this be—that it is not our duty to act with a spirit of love? This understanding of love as being the fulfillment of law is helpful, because then we know that we do not need some extra, unrevealed component to transform law-keeping into genuine love: God’s law-word is sufficient to instruct us in our duties of love.
One of the favored passages by sentimentalists is Matthew 5:38-42, where Jesus seems to denounce the lex talionis while telling us to turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, etc. At first glance, our Lord looks to be ordering total concession in just about every action we experience or undertake. But in fact, Christ is condemning only personal vengeance and unrighteous retaliation. Rather than correcting the lax talionis itself, He is correcting a misapplication of it to the personal sphere. In the civil sphere, it is a splendid law of proportionate justice, as Jesus Himself revealed earlier in history (Deut. 19:21), but here, He is commanding that although we may be personally humiliated or mocked (e.g., slapped in the face), we may not use violence, or even hatred, for the sake of self-glory. We ought to be self-abasing in a Christ-exalting way, caring not at all about our glory but only about His glory. “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Moreover, Jesus is here speaking of smaller injuries we endure, the bearing of which for peace’s sake is a greater act than causing unnecessary strife.4 It is important to note that this interpretation is consistent with the vengeance to be pursued in the judicial sphere (Rom. 13:4), as well as with the right of a man to defend his own and others’ lives. To protect ourselves from harm, and even to protect our reputation from slander, is not necessarily to glorify oneself, and consequently these are not forbidden by Jesus in the passage. They are different from hating or attacking someone else just because your ego has been hurt—rather than because, say, you are in mortal danger.
The biblical mandate of love extends elsewhere. All over Scripture, and especially the New Testament, we are taught to be humble, gentle, longsuffering, meek, tender, and gracious (1 Cor. 13:4-5; Eph. 4:2, 29; Phil. 4:5; Col. 3:12; 4:6; 1 Tim. 6:11; 2 Tim. 2:24; 1 Pet. 3:15; James 1:19-20). These passages lucidly teach that we are not supposed to be hotheads, easily angered at the least bit of sin in others. Our Father is infinitely longsuffering towards us (Rom. 2:4), and we should imitate Him. Yet, while these passages teach such gentleness and patience, it does not follow that the modern, womanish meaning and application of those terms is requisite, nor does it follow that warmness is the normative pattern of behavior in all circumstances and towards all men. We are indeed to be gracious and kind in ordinary circumstances and towards most people, but this does not entail that we are to be indiscriminately nice. A doctrine of indiscriminate niceness would contradict all the biblically approved examples of harsh language (e.g., 1 Kings 18:27; Hosea 1:2; Gal. 5:12; Phil. 3:2; 1 Tim. 4:1; Jude 8-15; Rev. 2:9; 22:15). One of the best instances of this is Jesus Himself in Matthew 23, when He verbally eviscerates the Pharisees. This aligns with His forceful example of driving out evil money changers from the temple (Matt. 21:12-13). Note, the overt enemies of God—the prophets of Baal, the Judaizers, the Pharisees, the false teachers—were the ones who received such verbal devastation. This should be kept in mind when we discern when to be gentle and when to be harsh, a practice we should approach with caution and prayer (Prov. 15:1).5
Thoughts into Action
We already covered part of Matthew 5, but there is another important principle to be gleaned from that same passage. In vv. 27-28, Jesus condemns heart-adultery. What He shows here is a strong connection between the outward act and the incipient disposition. There is an adamant connection between thoughts, words, and actions (cf. Mark 7:20-23).6 What is salient is that this connection is upheld when it comes to our duties. In the same way that a prohibition of an outward sin entails a prohibition of an inward sin, so also a command of an outward duty entails a command of an inward duty, and vice versa. This is particularly relevant when we must understand the aforementioned command to hate God’s enemies.
Before moving on, I want to slow down a bit to cover some more biblical material concerning the hatred of sinners. Besides the overt and explicit example of David’s hatred in Psalm 139:21-22, we also see many other injunctions in the psalms expressing the same heart attitude: the desire for the destruction of the wicked. For instance, Psalm 35:26 says, “Let them be ashamed and brought to mutual confusion who rejoice at my hurt; let them be clothed with shame and dishonor who exalt themselves against me.” These imprecations are very similar to David’s example in Psalm 139:21-22. They express a desire for the destruction of sinners—and what is a hatred of God’s enemies but a desire for their pain and destruction? Remarkably, these maledictions can be found quite frequently (Ps. 7:14-16; 35:4-8; 55:9, 15, 19, 23; 58:6-11; 69:22-28; 79:6-7, 10, 12; 83:13-18; 109:6-20, 29; 137:7-9), and the same imprecatory outlook of the biblical author can be found in the New Testament as well (Gal. 1:8-9; 1 Cor. 16:22; 2 Tim. 4:14). Such New Testament citations should be superfluous, because moral principles do not change across time, yet they show the importance and continuity of this doctrine nevertheless.
The practical import of this arrives, as I said, when we see that inward duties are linked with outward duties. Our obedience is deficient if we limit it to obedient thoughts; if we are called to a balanced hatred, it ought to manifest itself in manfully resisting evildoers in society.
Rather than embrace the simplistic sentimentalist ethic of indiscriminate niceness, we ought to affirm the majesty and perfection of God’s law. It might seem complex to us, but it is perfect. “How sweet are Your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through Your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way” (Ps. 119:103-104). “[T]he law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12).
Assuredly, God’s law is difficult to follow. It is hard enough to do what we know we ought to do (Rom. 7:19), and it is increasingly arduous when we do not know when exactly to display biblical hatred. Regardless, God still promises to sanctify us (Ezek. 36:27), improving both our understandings and our wills. As sinners, we will probably choose at times to be passive when we ought to be wrathful, or we might be scornful when we ought to be gracious. When these times come, we must repent and seek forgiveness, all the while being reminded of God’s promises, Jesus’s example, and His atoning sacrifice. As we learn how we ought to behave when confronted with evil in society, we must not neglect these portions of hatred displayed in God’s perfect law-word. We must know when we ought to hate the sin and hate the sinner.
- R.J. Rushdoony, Roots of Reconstruction, p. 625. Qtd. in “The Fallacy of Unconditional Love.” ↩
- No doubt, the doctrine of unconditional election would remind us that God does unconditionally love His elect, and that He loves them regardless of what sins they commit. In that sense, God does separate the sinner from his sins. But to discourse on this would be to veer from the subject matter. Suffice it to say that God’s unconditionally benevolent treatment of His elect is due to the righteousness and finished work of Christ imputed to their account. Or, it is one thing to say that God will treat a nefarious and hell-bound reprobate as if his sins were irrelevant, and it is another thing to say that God will treat an elect sinner, cleansed by the sacrificial blood of Christ, as if his sins were covered. ↩
- Correction: I now believe it is false that the proper harmonization of such verses as Matthew 5:44 and Psalm 139:21-22 is to “love our enemies but hate God’s enemies.” Please see “Biblical Love and Hatred Harmonized,” specifically answer #7 under “Offered Explanations.” ↩
- This is an excellent point made by Matthew Henry in his commentary. ↩
- It would be important to note that our attitudes of harshness or gentleness can also vary as we talk with the same person over a longer period of time. For instance, there might be a man promoting doctrines of demons in one’s church: it would probably not be right for an elder to immediately denounce him. He should be patient in correcting him. Later, if it turns out that such a man is incorrigible and proud, then to that degree harsh language becomes more appropriate. I would contend that this understanding makes better sense of such verses as 2 Tim. 2:24. ↩
- This is why the Ten Commandments, by implication, forbid a lot more than what they expressly command or forbid. ↩