"Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." - 2 Tim. 2:15
Most religious people agree that God hates sin. Over and over, the Bible stresses the fact that God despises iniquity. God told the prophet Jeremiah to speak to the Israelites about their sin, saying: “Oh, do not do this abominable thing that I hate!” (44:4). The Proverbs writer listed seven sins the Lord hates (6:16-19). The prophet Zechariah declared that God hates a false oath and evil done to one’s neighbor (8:17). Jesus Himself said that He hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:6). The Bible emphasizes that the Lord hates sin.
Some have suggested that God takes His hatred one step further. They believe that God hates the sinner as well as the sin he or she commits. It has been suggested that God loves those who obey Him, and hates all who disobey. Those who teach this idea use various Bible verses to “prove” their case. For instance, Psalm 5:5 says that God hates “all workers of iniquity.” Proverbs 6:18-19 says that God hates “a false witness who speaks lies, and one who sows discord among brethren.” Is it true that God hates sinners and their sin?
Any person who has read the Bible understands that one of its greatest themes is love. The Bible says that God is love (1 John 4:8). It also explains that God showed His love to us while we were still sinners:
For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).
An interesting aspect of this passage is that it stresses that lost sinners were not “righteous” or “good” when Christ demonstrated His love for them.
In the narrative of the rich young ruler, Jesus explained that the young man lacked something necessary to be pleasing to God. Yet even though the young man was lacking and lost, the Bible says that Jesus “loved him” (Mark 10:21). When Jesus mourned over lost Jerusalem, He cried:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! (Matthew 23:37).
Jesus said His affection for the lost inhabitants of Jerusalem was like a mother hen’s affection for her chicks. Such a statement obviously denotes love for the sinners in Jerusalem.
In one of the most well-known “love” verses in the Bible, Jesus said: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). God’s love for the lost world was shown before the lost believed in Jesus. John further explained this when he wrote: “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). From these verses it is clear that God loves lost sinners, and proved that love by sending Jesus.
How, then, can one reconcile the verses that seem to suggest that God hates sinners, but loves them at the same time? One of the most plausible solutions is that the Bible writers are using a figure of speech called metonymy when they write that God hates sinners. Metonymy is defined as: “A figure by which one name or noun is used instead of another, to which it stands in a certain relation” (Bullinger, 1898, p. 538). Bullinger further explains that metonymy can be “of cause,” when the person acting can be put in place of the thing that is done (p. 539). For instance, in Luke 16:29, the text says: “They have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them.” In reality, they did not have “Moses” or the “prophets,” but they did have their writings. The name Moses is a metonymy that stood for his writings, since he was the cause of the writings. In modern times, that would be like saying, “I hate Shakespeare.” Would the person who said that mean that he hated Shakespeare’s personality? No. We understand he would be saying he does not like the writings of Shakespeare, with no comment on the playwright’s personality.
If we apply that same figure of speech to the passages about God “hating sinners,” we can see that the sinner is put in place of the sin. Thus, when God says He hates “a false witness who speaks lies” (Proverbs 6:19), if metonymy is being used, then God hates the lies, and the one who is doing the lying (the cause) is put in place of the lies (the effect). It is interesting to see how clear this feature can be in other contexts. For instance, Proverbs 6:17 says that God hates “a lying tongue.” Does that mean that God hates a physical tongue, made of muscle and body tissue? No. It means God hates the sin that a tongue can perform. In the same context, we learn that God hates “feet that are swift in running to evil” (6:18). Again, does that mean that God hates physical feet? No. It simply means that God hates the sin that those feet can perform. It is interesting that while few, if any, would suggest that God hates physical tongues or actual feet, they would insist that God hates actual sinners and not the sin done by them.
When studying the Bible, it is very important to keep in mind that the Bible writers often used figures of speech. When we look at the idea that God hates sin, but loves sinners, the figure of speech known as metonymy clears up the confusion. Just as God does not hate physical feet or tongues, He does not hate sinners. These nouns are put in the place of the things they cause—sin.