Monday, February 15, 2010


Cliche Theology

I recently took part in a Bible study in which the well-worn phrase "God hates the sin but loves the sinner" came up.  Something about this phrase has always grated on me, in part because I'm more than a little suspicious of Christian cliches, and in part because it seems to contradict much of what is written in Scripture about the relationship between God and sinners.  So, giving in to my well-documented penchant for provocation, I plucked out a few verses from Psalm 139 and tossed them carelessly into the middle of the room:
 If only you would slay the wicked, O God!
       Away from me, you bloodthirsty men!

 They speak of you with evil intent;
       your adversaries misuse your name.

 Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD,
       and abhor those who rise up against you?

 I have nothing but hatred for them;
       I count them my enemies. 
Objective achieved ... NOT!  Rather than a lively discussion, I merely provoked confusion, and quickly retired the question ... not because it is an unimportant one, but rather because I approached a serious issue haphazardly and without a good idea of where I wanted to lead the discussion.  Memo to Jailer:  not all provocation is good all the time.

Even so, I remain intrigued by this question of whether "God hates the sin but loves the sinner." 

In some ways, this phrase seems to work quite well as a simple way to understand that God must punish sin but takes no pleasure in pouring out his wrath on mankind.  Indeed, God's saving love for "the world" as expressed in John 3:16 is probably Scripture's best known truth. Moreover, God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Yes, God hates my sin, but thankfully loved me, the sinner.

On the flip side, serious people need to recognize that this phrase marks the beginning of the theological discussion, not its culmination.  It is the very epitome of a cliche:  "a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse."

What's more, in many ways the import of the phrase is to answer the question, "Can God love me, a sinner"?  Where it loses its impact is in modern Western thought, in which the core assumption that God (where He is recognized at all) is really compelled to love everyone.  In that sense, grace is not really so amazing ... it's just part of God's obligation as a father.  Ho hum.

The problem with cliches, by definition, is that they quickly lose "originality, ingenuity, and impact" because we try to make them more than they are.  Does God hate sin?  Undeniably.  Does God love sinners?  Certainly, else we would all be lost.  But what's missing is an honest discussion about wrath--a word that appears 190 times in Scripture (NIV), as in:  The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.

Of course, when our culture (and an increasing number of Christians) believe that our core problem is that we've got a misplaced sense of self-worth and a dysfunctional relationship with our Father, this language about "godlessness and wickedness" seems harsh, unnecessary, even archaic.  Let us woo the lost with uplifting sermons and sincerity!  After all, God loves the sinner ... it's just that nasty sin problem we have to take care of.  A quick sinner's prayer and a baptism thrown in for good measure should take care of it.

Alas, this is where our cliches run dry, and where our easy converts quickly revert to worldliness when things get a little tough.  Grace means little to them, because sin means little.  God didn't save a wretch like me; he ran a wayward child through the Sin-B-Gone and hung an air freshener from my mirror.

Of course, that's not the Gospel.  We don't just have a sin problem ... we are the problem!  Scripture describes us as God's enemies--by nature objects of wrath before the searing holiness of His presence.  It is for good reason that the Apostle Paul begins his epistle to the Romans with a discussion about His wrath upon our wickedness before he unpacks the astoundingly great news that He has redeemed us from our hopeless condition.  It is only when I truly appreciate my shocking condition before Him that I truly appreciate the glory of His grace.

This is not advanced theology, this is the foundation of our faith ... and many our churches are filled with people who have little concept of it.  They know little more than our cliches.


  1. It's probably best to sort cases:

    If one does not know Christ, then a good part of the reason is that Newton's famous verse, "'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved" has not made itself real. In that case, there's no profit at all in speculating about the sense (if any) in which God loves you, since the alternative, eternal condemnation (Hell!) or receiving His Son remains.

    If you have received Christ, then it is very important to remember that His love rests on you, even when you sin. To that extent, the "cliche" is a good thing. However, if it's misused, then all the "comfort" that it might give will, according to John's first letter, be swept away: "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know you have eternal life." (1 Jn. 5:13) What things? "I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin." (1 Jn. 2:1) Loss of assurance is a hard price to pay for the "comfort" of taking one's sin lightly.

  2. Jailer,
    What are your thoughts on death and grieving...on unanswered prayer when someone you loved has suffered and died and was not healed despite the prayers of many?

  3. I agree with your post completely. Jesus said that unless we're born again... Well, may I assume that to become born again one must become unborn or dead first; and I'm not willing to die unless I abhor myself to death. Paul said that he was crucified with Christ. Are we an exception; can we get away with the painless Sin-B-Gone rinse and spin cycle and all is well? No! I need sweet Grace to rescue me from all of me!

  4. I enjoyed this article. I have held a strong aversion to cliches for some time now. I've not been able to articulate that as gracefully as was done here. Thank you.

  5. Way back in the Seventies I met an IV leader who was wont to ask more questions that give cliches. His name was Barney Ford and he ended up as VP of IV. One of his questions was, "If you want to know how to add or subtract or multiply, we need to know something more basic; "What is the base number system you are using?"

    Cliches are not intended to get at real answers but to put off difficult questions. I have been a Family Therapist and Minister for many years. This brings me into contact with a lot of people who need God's counsel on marriage and parenting. This is where cliches reign big time.

    Who do you think only knows that a wife must "submit"? The husband.

    Who knows that the husband is always supposed to "lay down his life for his wife"? The woman.

    There is no need to understand the deeper things of God, the Bible, marital relationships, etc. Just quote one text out of context and that text is used as a pretext.

    We need an understanding of what we and the Bible means by "SIN" and how that impacts humans. We must also understand what it means to a non-believer as a human and a believer as a Christian human for they are very, radically different.

    In Genesis 1 and 2 there is no sin but the garden party goes sour in Chapter 3. Here and throughout the Bible we see that the Fallen Nature of all humanity is impacted in 4 ways.

    All humans are Rebellious and choose their own ways.

    Everyone is in Bondage in every way; body, soul, spirit, relationships, family, generation ally, etc.
    Every person suffers from true Moral Guilt and deserves the Justice or wrath of God.

    Every person suffers from Shame, a loss of personal identity and inheritance.

    Thankfully, God sent Jesus to redeem us from Rebellion with Conversion, Bondage with Regeneration, True Moral Guilt Justice with Justification and Shame with Adoption.

    Believers have remnants of these but are now God's children, in His forever family and on the progressive road to health, maturity and freedom in every way.

    Cliches will not speak to the whole gospel or to the whole person. Thus, we have a truncated view of fallen nature, a truncated view of the gospel and a truncated view of Christian redemption.

    Cliches then are forced to fit into the shallow view of fallen nature and a weak gospel.

  6. I'm not sure I can contribute intelligently to this conversation as I have a fairly simple mindset towards our Savior, Jesus Christ. I know that, whatever I do, He will always love me and hope for my return. Consider His story of the Prodigal Son.

    As a parent of three sons, I've gotten angry with them many times and even punished them. But, I never ever stopped loving them.

    So, did I hate the sin but not the sinner? YES! Do I love my children more than God loves us? NO. How then could I ever imagine God not loving me no matter what I do.

    Recognizing that I love them, my children always "came back to me". They did not want me angry. They wanted to FEEL my love. It is the same thing for me when I offend my personal savior, Jesus. I want to experience my relationship with Him growing but instead I feel more distant, almost alienated, from Him when I sin. I have an empty feeling inside and desparately want to remedy the situation. I confess my sin(s) and seek His forgiveness, which is always there.

    I agree the expression is trite, a cliche, and seems to diminish the true power of the words. That doesn't make the words any less true.


Record your thoughts on the cell wall