Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin

“Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”– a contrite evangelical saying but evidently an old idea going at least back to the English civil wars but likely ancient. Besides the colloquially contains several dense theological concepts. I was surprised to find the idea in Mr. Benson’s commentary on Ephesians chapter 4, verse 26 and then cross referenced with Christ’s anger at the pharisees for their contempt of the Father’s mercy as well as his divine person. Below are several quotations illustrating Benson’s high regard of Anglican writers as well as a similar reference found in the Rev. Allestree’s Whole Duty of Man, an interregnum text. 

Ephesians 4:26 is the bible passage regarding ‘Holy Anger’, and though we could doubt man is capable of exerting a righteous indignation without likewise exerting pride or malice, the Apostle indeed commends,

26 “Be ye Angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath”

What is it to be angry yet without sin? Benson says it depends on the motivation for anger. If the root be by scorn or revenge, it is a carnal and wicked anger. But if it be akin to grief for the lack of your neighbor’s good improvement, it is justifiable. Indeed, we may even be correct in our appropribation for God’s sake. Benson explains the important, perhaps nuanced, distinction:

“That is, if at any time ye are angry, take heed ye do not sin. We may be angry, as Christ was, and not sin; when he looked round about upon the people with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their heart (Mark 3.5) that is, we may be displeased and grieved at the sin or the follow of others, and not sin by being so. Indeed, if we should observe people to do or say what we know to be sinful, or should see them indulging evil tempers and vile affections, and should not be displeased and grieved, we would commit sin. For to be insensible, and without emotion, when we observe God to be dishonored, his laws violated, his presence, power, and holiness disregarded, and his justice and wrath contemned, certainly manifests a state of soul devoid of all proper religious feeling.

The scriptural example(s) Benson cites of Christ showing anger obviously is from St. Mark 3.5. Here, the pharisees attempt to charge Christ for Sabbath-breaking upon his healing a palsy hand. The verse says,

5. “And when he had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts, he saith unto the man, stretch forth thy hand.”

Of course, Christians ought to have the good of their neighbor always in mind, not only in terms of their body but especially their soul. Our greatest concern, even with our enemy, is that they do not suffer the eternal torment, or hell, and the refusal of heavenly gifts as a tragic obstinance. We also see Benson’s generous use of Drs. Whitby and Scott, both mid-18th century Anglican divines. Quoting the latter, Benson explains,

“Showing at once his indignation at their wickedness, and his grief for their impenitence…. He knew his arguments did not prevail with them, because they were resisting the convictions of their own minds; and was both angry at their obstinacy, and grieved on account of the consequences of it; showing these just affections of his righteous spirit by his looks, that if possible an impression might be made either on them or on the spectators. He might in this, likewise, propose to teach us the just regulation of the passions and affections of our nature, which are not sinful in themselves, otherwise he who was without sin could not have been subject to them. The evil of them lies in their being excited by wrong objects, or by right objects in an improper degree. Thus Dr. Whitby: ‘Hence we learn that anger is not always sinful; this passion being found in him in who was no sin. But then it must be noted, that anger is not properly defined by philosophers– a desire of revenge, or, of causing grief, to him who hath provoked or hath grieved us; for this desire of revenge is always evil; and though our Savior was angry with the Pharisees for the hardness of their hearts, yet had he no desire to revenge this sin upon them, but had a great compassion for them, and desire to remove this evil‘ Mr. Scott, who quotes a part of the above note properly adds, ‘Our Lord’s anger was not only not sinful, but it was a holy indignation, a perfectly right state of heart, and the want of it would have been a sinful defect. It would show a want of filial respect and affection for a son to hear, without emotion, his father’s character unjustly aspersed. Would it not, then, be a want of due reverence for God, to hear his name blasphemed, without feeling and expressing an indignant disapprobation?

Benson’s quotation of Thomas Scott continues, interestingly taking the point of view of the magistrate or any person endowed with a collective authority if callous to the punishment of vice. Remember, as mentioned above, express anger can serve even a public good, if an expression of it can impress either the spectators or the guilty persons. In respect to civil rulers, Benson (Scott) additionally says,

“Vengeance belongs to the ruler exclusively; and he may grieve at the necessity imposed on him of thus expressing his disapprobation of crimes; but it is his duty. Eli ought to have shown anger as well as grief when informed of the vile conduct of his sons; and to have expressed it by severe coercive measures. Thus parents and masters, as well as magistrates, may sin, in not feeling and expressing just displeasure against those under their care: and anger is only sinful when it springs from selfishness and malevolence; when causeless, or above the cause; and when expressed by unhallowed words and actions.”

So, regardless of transgression, Christian man is to “love thy neighbor as thyself”. Yet, anger is apparently righteous when (1) God is dishonored by sheer obstinacy or even willful ignorance, (2) when the good of neighbor, especially the welfare of their soul, is persistently refused (in the scriptural example above ‘hardened’).

The adage, “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”, evidently well-precedes 18th-century Arminian or evangelical thought. Regarding the Justice owed to neighbors, the Rev. Richard Allestree’s Whole Duty bases hatred of sin squarely on charity to mankind. So, our response to reprobate men is not their final demise but reproving them unto righteousness. Allestree says,

“God hath given men abilities not only for their own use, but for the advantage and benefit of others; and therefore what is thus given for their use becomes a debt to them [the neighbor], whenever their need requires it. Thus, he that is ignorant and wants knowledge, is to be instructed by him that hath it; and this is one special end why that knowledge is given him. He that is in sadness and affliction, is to be comforted by him that is himself in cheerfulness. He that is in any course of sin, and wants reprehension and counsel, must have that want supplied to him by those who have such abilities and opportunities as may make it likely to do good. That is a Justice we owe to our Neighbor, appears plainly by this text, Lev. 19.17, ‘Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart, thou shalt in any wise reprove him, and not suffer sin upon him’. Where we are under the same obligation to reprove him, that we are not to hate him.” p. 190

Finally, we might want to compare these thoughts with Mr. Wesley’s Sermon on Reproving our Neighbor. In fact, Wesley begins his discourse by the same proof text supplied above by Allestree, Lev. 19.17.

“Love indeed requires us to warn him, not only of sin, (although this chiefly) but likewise of any error which, if it were persisted in, would naturally lead to sin. If we do not ‘hate him in our heart’, if we love our neighbor as ourselves, this will be our constant endeavor; to warn him of every evil way, and of every mistake which tends to evil.”

Reader, take note, true evangelical opinion precludes ‘Loving the sinner by allowing the Sin’. Instead, we should be constant and wise in seeking correction or rebuke of men, yet not for malevolent reasons but seeking their eternal good.

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