D. A. Carson’s article on “love” in the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology contains this helpful discussion about the statement “God hates sin but loves sinners.”
There is a small element of truth in this thesis. God always hates sin; he is invariably and implacably opposed to it. And it is true that God loves sinners: God ‘demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Rom. 5:8; cf. John 3:16). Nevertheless the thesis, with its simplistic antithesis between the personal sinner and sin in the abstract, is mistaken. The same apostle who declares that God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against ‘all the godlessness and wickedness of men’ (Rom. 1:18) also speaks of God’s wrath against individuals (2:5); indeed we are all ‘by nature children of wrath’ (NRSV). The first fifty Psalms repeatedly describe the kinds of people on whom God’s wrath rests, not just the kinds of sin. Indeed, the language can move from God’s wrath to God’s hate and abhorrence: ‘The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong. You destroy those who tell lies; bloodthirsty and deceitful men the Lord abhors’ (Ps. 5:5-6, NIV).
None of this means that God’s wrath is arbitrary or whimsical. In Scripture, God’s wrath, however affective, is the willed and righteous response of his holiness to sin. God’s holiness, like God’s love, is intrinsic to the very being of God; his wrath is not. To put the point another way:God has always been holy, as he has always been love; he has not always been wrathful. but where his holiness confronts the rebellion of his creatures, he must be wrathful (and the entire sweep of the Bible’s storyline insists he is), or his holiness is anaemic. Yet for all that he is no less the God of love.
Dr. Carson addresses the “hate the sin, love the sinner” thesis in connection with God’s love and wrath, but I have heard the thesis more often in connection with human response toward sin and sinners. While it is too simplistic to say, as Carson points out, that God hates the sin but loves the sinner, I think this is a good and helpful statement to guide our our response to sinners and their sin. Unlike God, we do not have the ultimate responsibility to mete out justice, since vengeance is his exclusive domain (Romans 12:19; Hebrews 10:30). Even Christian rebuke and discipline falls under the rubric of love, not wrath (2 Corinthians 2:6-8). And Jude beautifully captures the attitude we must have toward people and their sin: “To others show mercy with fear [Love the sinner!], hating even the garment stained by the flesh [Hate the sin!]” (Jude 23).
To say that God hates the sin but loves the sinner is too simplistic, since Scripture does speak of God showing wrath and abhorrence toward sinners. But as a guide for our human attitudes and actions, this statement is helpful, and resonates with Scripture.
Even the psalmist’s statement: “I hate them with a perfect hatred” (Psalm 139:22) is an expression of his solidarity with God’s cause, not permission to exercise hateful wrath (God’s domain) against God’s enemies.