Acton Institute Powerblog

Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin

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Speaking of the ubiquity of pornography in our culture, last week ABC News’ Nightline highlighted the work of XXXChurch, a ministry aimed at evangelizing porn stars and pornographers, as well as addressing the spiritual problems associated with consuming pornography. Check out the story, “The Porn Pastors:”

JR Mahon of the ministry says in the piece, “Our biggest critics are Christians.” Sadly this comes as no surprise. When XXXChurch came up with the idea of a New Testament with a cover emblazoned, “Jesus Loves Porn Stars,” resistance from the evangelical community was quick and strong. The American Bible Society refused to publish it.

Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said at the time that “I think these guys have crossed a line that I would not cross and I would not commit.”

“I just have to wonder what people think when they see that cover,” Mohler said. “In other words, are they expecting the Bible or are they expecting something else?”

Similar furor has erupted over an Australian Baptist church’s display of a sign that read, “Jesus Loves Osama.” Melinda at the Stand to Reason Blog calls such mottoes “bumper sticker Christianity” that is “just so unhelpful.”

The defense in both cases is that the verbiage is that it is simply an attempt to communicate the gospel message in a challenging and thought-provoking way; that we are called to evangelize everyone in the Great Commission and that we are to love our enemies.

There are two errors that are often committed in these areas. The conservative error is to reject both the sinner and the sin in the interests of purity and holiness. The liberal error is to minimize or even celebrate the evil of the sin as good in the interests of acceptance, tolerance, and “love.”

Augustine helps us to avoid both errors. If we are at pains to legislate against certain types of behavior but are not undertaking evangelistic efforts to convert those who need it most, we engage in Pharisaic legalism. If we do nothing to rebuke sin, we engage in licentious antinomianism.

Here are some thoughts from Augustine, that could arguably be pretty well summarized in the bumper sticker slogan, “Love the sinner, hate the sin” (clearly in light of the second quote the word “sinner” would need to be properly parsed):

“That is, he should not hate the man because of the fault, nor should he love the fault because of the man; rather, he should hate the fault but love the man. And when the fault has been healed there will remain only what he ought to love, and nothing that he ought to hate” (City of God, 14.6).

“No sinner, precisely as sinner, is to be loved; and every human being, precisely as human, is to be loved on God’s account, God though on his own. And if God is to be loved more than any human being, we all ought to love God more than ourselves” (De Doctrina Christiana, 1.27.28).

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • This is one of the best posts I have seen on this important subject. Thanks so much for presenting it.

  • That statement: love the sinner, hate the sin – has always bothered me. Overly simplistic, and questionable as to the ability of mere mortals to both love and hate appropriately. You (and Augustine) have clarified it immensely.

  • I really like the second quote. I’m very familiar with the first one, since it’s in part of the book I use when I teach Augustine to my introductory philosophy classes, but the second one is a little closer to allowing the kind of language used in the psalms. There are a couple places where the psalmist quite clearly expresses hate for people, and the only way to make sense of that is to admit that you can love and hate someone simultaneously but in different senses. The second Augustine quote makes sense of exactly how to say that in a very precise and accurate way.

  • Thanks for the blog visit and sharing your blog. Great post!

    I hope you’ll consider submitting something to “paper” publication so I can read your work as one of the entries in the Amy Writing Awards.

    Keep up the good work!

  • Stacy Harp

    Good post Jordan, thanks for sharing it.

  • Cheryl Spencer

    I like the advice Jesus gave, “let the one without sin cast the first stone at her.”
    Christians have somehow become mean and intolerant. I wonder if the tv preachers have ever heard of Jesus. They tell us who God is angry with and says we brought the terrorists and the storms on ourselves with our sinfulness. I wonder if Ann Coulter ever heard of Jesus. She actually seems to enjoy attacking people who she considers sinful, who do not agree with her opinions. These “Good Christians” make sport of casting stones. They love law and rules more than the person. They are the opposite of Christ-ian.

  • Cheryl, Jesus was talking to people who were about to kill someone, and he told her very specifically not to sin anymore. He insisted that what she had done was sin. You have to keep that in mind.

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