Does God hate the sin but love the sinner? It’s one of the all time great questions.
All my pre-college training tells me that can’t be quite right. God is holy. And he takes sin personally. As much as we’re victim’s of evil, we also entangle ourselves with it in a thousand different ways as its perpetrators. So it would seem that Calvin is closer to the mark when he says, ‘in a marvellous and divine way [God] loved us even when he hated us’ (Institutes II.xvi.4).
But this seems almost unthinkable! Is God … conflicted? Schizophrenic even?
To say so sounds like astounding anthropomorphism. But at least one of Israel’s prophets got close, giving us a window into God’s agony of his erring people:
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath. (Hosea 11.8-9)
John Stott defines God’s wrath as his ‘holy reaction to evil’ (The Cross of Christ, p 103). On the one hand, it’s his ‘alien’ or strange work (cf. Isaiah 28.21). In an important sense, it’s out of character for him. God would much rather not display his wrath, if I dare put it that way — and I’m in good company here: ‘Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live?’, says the LORD (Ezekiel 18.23).
On the other hand, it is perfectly appropriate for the holy God to be implacably, ferociously, non-negotiably opposed to evil. Indeed, in at least one instance God wrath portrayed as a function of his love (rather than something that stands over against it): ‘You only have I known of all the families of the earth; / therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities’ (Amos 3.2). Israel’s privileged relationship is the basis of their judgement, not grounds for exemption from it.
In fact, we need to follow Amos’s lead here. We must integrate our thinking about God’s love and holiness. As P. T. Forsythe insisted, God is not the insipid, sentimental, ever-loving God of liberalism who stands ever ready to forgive; rather, he is the one who — in perfect holiness and love, justice and mercy — has redeemed in Christ. And so our thinking about God’s character must be decisively determined by the cross as its ultimate vindication.
Love is more basic than wrath for God. It’s free, uncoerced, unconditional. God doesn’t owe it to us because we’re loveable or worthy. He loves because that is truest to his own character and nature. It’s the defining characteristic of the triune fellowship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit — overflowing graciously to us, his creatures (and rebellious creatures to boot!).
Nevertheless, it is not a love that makes no demands. Or that costs nothing. Even the faint glimmer of the cost of God’s love that we catch a glimpse of in the Parable of the Prodigal Son highlights as much: the father, hitching up his robe and running to welcome the son who wanted him dead, humiliates himself. So much does God love us.