Faith Frontiers

Love The Sinner; Hate The Sin

Until the early 1900s, families and social institutions in North America were supported by a dominant Christian culture that stood at the center of and informed the moral values, laws, and customs of the nation.  The Christian worldview, a particular set of assumptions about reality, asserts that the universe was created and is sustained by the transcendent will of the Creator who is revealed in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures (not deified in nature) as "YAHWEH," or "Jehovah God" in ancient Greek.

The will of God is like a flux that flows through the universe, ordering and giving birth to life orchestrated by natural laws inherent in the way God made things to work.  As such, God's presence is reflected in the wonder and order of nature.  "The laws of physics," wrote Paul Davies, "really exist in the world…, and the job of the scientist is to uncover them, not invent them."  Without the will of God that sustains such laws and gives order to our surroundings, the universe's existence would descend into chaos.

Drawing on the historic narratives of the Bible and scientific discoveries, it is the task of mankind in every age to learn who God is, how God works in the world, and what God expects of us as His stewards of the earth.  In the beginning, according to the testimony of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Creator proclaimed creation as "good," that is, functioning in harmony with the will of the Creator.  Within boundaries that established and maintained order, mankind was free to follow the ebb and flow of life.  There was, however, an initial boundary that mankind was forbidden to cross.

And the LORD God commanded man,
"You may freely eat of every tree of the garden;
But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat,
For in the day that you eat of it you shall die."
Genesis 2:16-17 (NRSV)

Every student of the Bible knows what happened next.

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food,
And that it was a delight to the eyes,
And that the tree was to be desired (epithumia) to make one wise,
She took of its fruit and ate;
And she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.
Genesis 3:6 (NRSV)

As stewards of the earth, mankind was given great authority and freedom.  The freedom to choose, however, includes being responsible for the consequences of choices that are made.  Prudent stewards remember that freedom and authority are delegated by a higher authority who commands their loyalty and to whom they are accountable.  Mankind was not prudent.  When first confronted with personal desires that exceeded the boundaries God established, would mankind choose to obey or disobey God?  The scriptures tell us mankind chose to disobey, and the harmony of God's creation was disrupted.  Unwilling to regulate and control their desires (epithumia in ancient Greek), mankind betrayed God's trust.  As a result, human beings became alienated from God, the source of life.  This then is the basic meaning of "sin," to be alienated from God.  Human beings challenged their Creator through an act of willful disobedience, and the consequence was alienation from life, or "death." 

Gehard Kittel writes, "The essential significance of epithumia is that it is desire as impulse, a motion of the will.  It is, in fact, lust, since the thought of satisfaction gives pleasure and the possibility of dissatisfaction gives pain….epithumia is anxious self-seeking."  Thus, mankind rebelled, ceased to acknowledge God, and turned inward, seeking only self-gratification and lusting after power to fulfill their desires.

Based on this understanding, Christian tradition concludes that human beings are initially motivated by selfish desire, seeking personal pleasure while avoiding pain.  Desire creates anxiety that leads to conflict with anything that prevents or threatens to prevent the acquisition of that which is desired.  This preeminence of selfish desire (anxious self-seeking) expresses the biblical understanding of the human condition of sinfulness.  Sinfulness, therefore, is an attitude of self-assertion that alienates a person from the Creator God and from others with whom that person competes for the fulfillment of his or her own personal desires.

However, the Christian worldview further believes that, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, God sets aside (forgives) human sinfulness, frees mankind from enslavement to selfish desire, and restores their broken relationship and life.  To receive this gift of God's grace, mankind must respond.  Each individual is called to repent, that is, take responsibility for their actions, turn away from anxious self-seeking, and "die to self," i.e., to trust in the saving grace that comes through Christ Jesus, and to live harmoniously with the will of God. 

This forgiveness is offered to all repentant sinners because God loves the world so much that he gave his beloved Son to die for us.  This is the gift of God through Jesus Christ to all who are willing to repent and have faith (trust) in him.  What this gift does not do, however, is change the consequences of human sinful acts.  God may forgive the sinner, but society does not forget the sin.  Sinful behavior (that which is contrary to the way God made the world to work) lives on in the damage and pain it causes.

"Love the sinner; hate the sin."  Most Christians are familiar with this little axiom.  It expresses a modern paradox with which many Christians struggle.  Assuming sin is recognized as a human problem, it is difficult to separate the sin from the sinner, the act from the one who acts.  How does one love one's neighbor if that neighbor's behavior is offensive and even repulsive?  What does it mean to forgive one another?  How does that apply to tolerance for behavior that is intolerable in social settings?  The answer is that forgiveness requires a response of changed behavior.  We can forgive one another for indiscretions and deviations from moral norms, such as divorce and even abortion if there is repentance.  However, this does not alter the harmful affects such acts have on others or on society as a whole.  From this standpoint, the offense must not be repeated.

In the previous commentary, "Human Sexuality," I described how traditional Christian morality is being subverted in North American society in order to normalize sexual behaviors that deviate from biblical standards.  Recreational sex outside of marriage, enabled by improved contraceptive techniques, emerged as a new norm in the 1960s.  As sexual intercourse was no longer bound to the marriage commitment, divorce emerged as a new social norm accompanied by the practice of heterosexual co-habitation outside of marriage.  Once restricted to situations of life or death, abortions of convenience soon emerged as socially acceptable and, indeed, even as a woman's right.  Most recently, homosexuality and same-sex marriage are emerging as the latest deviant behaviors to be normalized in a regressive society. 

These behaviors deviate from the norms established by biblical standards for human sexuality as God created it.  Proclaiming biblical norms to be irrelevant in the modern world does not change moral standards established by the Creator that are timeless in their application.  The emergence of modern deviations in society, and even the subsequent sanctification of such deviations by progressive religious leaders, does not change anything.  Deviant behavior of any kind is contrary to the way God made the world to work and not in harmony with the will of God.  Does this make any difference in the grand scheme of things?  Yes!  The consequences of sinful behaviors are real in the world.  Does God forgive deviant behavior in repentant individuals?  Yes!  But as stated above, the harmful effects on society remain unchanged.

To deny this reality in a post-Christian age is to take the very idea of sin out of its social context and file it away under "archaic" and "irrelevant."  People who imagine themselves as enlightened by science and technology simply don't believe in "sin," especially if they are not serious about acknowledging the presence of God.  Nevertheless, while some may be glad for an excuse to ignore the idea of "sin," many others are not willing to separate themselves from a traditional culture that acknowledges "sin" as an on-going human problem.

What are the implications of "sin" that many in the modern world wish to ignore?  Those whose understanding is controlled by human arrogance see "sin" in relation to primitive ideas of hell and damnation.  No serious Christian really says that anymore because we understand now that punishment is not the aim of God's judgment.  The consequence of sin is "death," that is, ceasing to exist at all.  In this regard, it is curious that one of the greatest human fears is that of ceasing to exist.  Expressed in the words of Percy B. Shelley's epitaph, it is the fear that "Here lies a man whose name was writ in water." 

Additionally, it is problematic for the enlightened mind when "sin" implies a failed responsibility to an authority that transcends human control and understanding.  For the enlightened modern, human reason and understanding define the perimeters of the known universe.  If one acknowledges the reality of sin, one must also acknowledge the presence of a higher authority and rule.  But if one rejects the idea there is a God who is imminent and who holds human beings responsible to a moral code, then "sin" can easily be rejected.  And, more to the point, if there is no sin there can be no sinners.  Thus, being faced with the possibility of their own non-existence, enlightened moderns delude themselves by thinking God and sin do not exist.  In other words, they reject God and the primary cause of their existence.  The real consequence of this decision cannot be explained in understandable terms other than those who reject the Source of life have chosen death.

While the idea of "sin" has ancient roots in the moral practices of the Judeo-Christian religions, the modern world claims to believe people have moved beyond such "primitive" understandings.  Sin, however, is not derived from human understanding nor is it bound by time.  The concept of sin comes from God.  It expresses a broken relationship not only between mankind and the Creator but within all social relationships.  It is, to a great extent, caused by unrestrained selfish desires contrary to the will of God.  Sin itself represents the human failure to relate responsibly to the Source of life and to life itself.  Thus, all forms of deviancy, particularly sexual deviancy, are a result of individuals failing to accept responsibility for their thoughts and actions in a morally relational world.
Most people in Western civilizations are familiar with the scriptural commandments prohibiting murder, adultery (sexual intercourse with someone other than your spouse), stealing, bearing false witness against one's neighbor, and coveting what belongs to another.  Social communities cannot exist in an environment where these things are practiced.  This is true for other morally deviant behaviors as well.  Created to be social beings, mankind cannot do these things without serious consequences to themselves, their families, and their societies.

Add to these the commands: honor your father and mother, honor the Sabbath day and set it apart from the rest of the week for worship, respect and honor the name of the Lord your God, and worship only the Creator of heaven and earth rather than things that are created.  These preliminary commands to be responsible to God and family were basic to keeping those that followed.  By observing these commands, mankind could live in harmony with the will of God and his creation.  It is a simple formula.  But as the Apostle Paul wrote, all have sinned and fallen short of what God requires of us.  No one is righteous (in right relationship with God), not one.  But God has promised that, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, those who repent and trust in Christ's work of redemption will not die but live forever.  God loves the sinner.  Providing for the redemption of sinners cost God dearly.  Christ Jesus had to be willing to die in order to pay the price of redemption for the world's sins.  We believe this without fully understanding it, other than to say that God is moral and just.  Therefore, we are invited to accept God's promise by faith (trusting in God).  Because God forgives repentant sinners, those who are forgiven are called upon to forgive others for the consequences of their sins.

This means forgiving the repentant sinner, regardless of his or her behavior that deviated from God's commands.  Such forgiveness, however, does not include tolerating or accepting continued behaviors that deviate from the moral norms established by God.  Forgiveness requires repentance from the sinner, a turning around and going in a new direction, changed behavior.  Forgiveness is not meant to enable the emergence of other behaviors that also deviate from biblical norms.  Again, a new attitude of obedience to God's will is required. 

The modern sexual revolution of the 1960s began with a movement in American society to normalize promiscuous sexual relations outside the covenant of marriage.  It continued through the social acceptance of divorce and abortion and now is progressing through the normalization of homosexuality and same-sex marriage.  Today, these deviations from biblical morality threaten the very cornerstone of American culture, the family and the sacred institution of heterosexual marriage.  Christians may be expected to love the sinner, but also they are expected to reject and stand against the sin.

While all sexual relations outside of marriage are never acceptable in a truly Christian culture, we cannot always know the circumstances that lead people to deviate from biblical norms.  We cannot know the circumstances that led to someone's divorce, or the need to abort a child, or involvement in a sexual relationship outside of marriage, or felt the need to steal or lie, or even enter into a homosexual relationship.  Neither are we qualified to judge another for their choices in these matters.  But we can recognize the need to keep biblical norms and hold one another socially accountable to these norms.  That is why repentance and forgiveness are made available by the Creator.

Loving the sinner means being open to those repentant of former choices.  Repentance requires a mutual understanding where the sinner is loved in spite of the sin, provided the sin is rejected and there is a new beginning.  At the same time, the sinner is mindful that he or she has deviated from and wishes to return to the biblical norm for relational living in God's creation.  This second part usually proves to be most difficult.  The consequences of divorce and abortion cannot be reversed in society, no matter how justified the choice.  Again, loving the sinner does not mean accepting alternatives to biblical standards of behavior.  There are no alternatives.  But Christians may love the sinner and still hate the sin and the pain it causes in social relations and situations.  That is why there must be repentance on the part of every sinner.  Once forgiven, however, the sin cannot be repeated without further alienation.

Fornication (consensual sexual intercourse between two people not married to each other), rape and incest (nonconsensual sexual intercourse), and homosexuality (sexual intercourse between two people of the same sex) are another matter.  With some exceptions, these are predatory behaviors, a sexual lusting after the flesh of another which is incompatible with the structures of familial society.  Predatory behavior arises out of a selfish desire to possess another and use that person as an object of one's pleasure.  Communities and other social institutions based on traditional moral relations of mutual trust view predatory behavior as anti-social and a threat to families and the community as a whole.  Healthy congregations will not tolerate sexual or emotional predators who prey on men, women, or children in their midst. 

There may be exceptions where committed homosexual couples are concerned, but such couples are rare.  Reduced to the simplest terms, heterosexuals can be open to homosexuals in Christian communities where sexual orientation is subordinated to faith, belief, and practice.  The occasion for conflict arises when homosexuals demand their lifestyle be accepted and normalized in spite of unambiguous biblical standards to the contrary.  When left to the category of "sinner," the homosexual is no different than others within the faith community since all have sinned and seek God's forgiveness through Jesus Christ.  However, as stated above, there must be repentance and an understanding that behaviors deviating from the norm are prohibited within the community.

In terms of behavior, homosexuals may be received into the community as fellow Christians as long as their sexual orientation is not lifted up as acceptable in God's sight, such as by open displays of affection between male or female couples in worship or aggressive promotion of the homosexual lifestyle within the faith community.  Such behavior is offensive to traditionally minded families and members and demonstrates a rebellious attitude toward God and disrespect for the moral standards upon which the community is based.  Without mutual acceptance and understanding of appropriate behavioral patterns, the homosexual issue can divide and even destroy congregations.  Therefore, it is better to exclude openly aggressive homosexuals from the faith community if they have no love for others who might be offended by deviant behavior.

Christian congregations now struggle to maintain their particular identity in a secularized culture that no longer supports the values and morals established by God.  Nevertheless, Christians and their congregations are still called to proclaim the immanence and transcendence of God by testifying to who God is, how God made the world to work, and what God expects of every human being.  We must be faithful and true to our calling by upholding and following the principles established by the Creator.  

Revised 3/25/10 - ECB