Nuance is unpopular (and difficult) in sound bite debates. Rather than finding a balance between two important points, we tend to pick one side and try to pummel the other into submission. Watch the debates about any political issue, and you’ll quickly see how much both sides ignore each other while they
talk shout past each other.
Sadly, the church isn’t immune to this. The same issues keep coming up, and the same points keep getting made, but all to little effect. I’d like to suggest that we can divide the church in most of today’s ethical debates with one simple line. I’ll call it the grace-and-truth line.
The Grace-and-Truth Line
Our grace-and-truth line is causing all sorts of silly fractures in the church. Grace people fear legalists and Pharisees who force people to live by their own artificial rules. Truth people fear universalists and antinomians who disregard God’s moral law.
In ethics debates, the grace people usually are optimistic about humanity. They receive all people as good and acceptable as they are—everyone except, perhaps, the truth people. The truth people usually are pessimistic about humanity. They generally seem to view all people as sinners in need of reform—everyone except, perhaps, themselves. 1
You may find my black-and-white depictions unfair—guilty of the very thing I’ve said is our problem. Many people operate somewhere toward the center of these. Actually, we all suppose that we’re right at the center of any tension like this, striking the perfect balance. But even for those who aren’t fully black or white in the balance, it’s worth asking ourselves if we’re over-representing one side and neglecting the other.
How Tony Campolo tries to navigate grace and truth
Tony Campolo tells a moving and heart-breaking story about his conversation with a mother whose gay son committed suicide. He makes a strong point. The phrase “hate the sin, love the sinner” has been abused to condemn people’s actions from a distance. But while it’s easy to lob stones at sin from afar, it’s difficult to love people from that distance. As a result, many Christians’ hatred of sin has prevented them from coming near enough to “love the sinner.” Remove that, and the phrase simply becomes “hate the sin.” In fact, it begins to appear like, “hate the sin, hate the sinner.” All truth, no grace.
Campolo says that we should love the sinner and hate our own sin. Whenever we have gotten rid of the sin in our own lives, then we can begin talking about the sin in our brother’s or sister’s life. Though he doesn’t say it, I get the impression that Campolo really means we’ll always have our own sin to deal with, so we should never talk about someone else’s.
Campolo’s motto is about grace for others, truth for ourselves. That’s not a bad corrective for those of us who are quick to give ourselves grace (every mistake has a good excuse) and to apply truth to others (they’ve got to do better).
Is Campolo’s solution sufficient? I don’t believe so. In fact, I think “Love the sinner; hate your own sin” is no better than the original, nor is it more biblical. In some ways, it’s less. Let’s look at another option.
Full of grace and truth
John’s gospel introduces Jesus by saying that he came to the world “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Jesus offers grace to a woman whom the people are ready to condemn: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then he offers truth to her as a woman who needs to repent: “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:2–11).
Jesus acquits the woman from the people’s condemnation, then condemns her actions and tells her to change. Could he have neglected either and been more loving? Or do we find his perfect love only at the intersection of full grace and full truth?
The problem with the truth-teller isn’t that he chastises people about their sin, but that he often doesn’t love those he chastises. His offer of grace is insincere, or lacking entirely. He suggests that he might give grace and hospitality once a person accepts the truth, but surely not before.
The problem with the grace-bearer is that, wishing to defend the sacred worth of the person, she’ll often defend his indefensible actions, as well. 2 Endorsing another person’s wickedness and self-destruction is surely one of the most hateful things humanity has ever tried to pass off as love.
On loving people and hating sin
No, Jesus never said, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” But he did say, “there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10). And James wrote, “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (James 5:20).
I’d like to ask Tony Campolo how he expects us to ever turn a sinner from the error of his way if we’re never supposed to bring it up. I’d like to ask him why I shouldn’t hate anything that’s leading someone toward death.
A beloved friend of mine has cancer. I hate that cancer. I hate all cancer from a distance, but I particularly hate her cancer, because it’s trying to kill her. If I hated no one’s cancer but my own, what a selfish person I would be!
Even more, then, I hate sin. I hate all sin from a distance, but I particularly hate the sin of those I love, because it’s trying to kill them. I hate my own sin for the same reason. (If we don’t hate our own sin, we’re fools, running toward destruction, even while we claim to be warning others away from it.) But hating my own sin doesn’t prevent me from hating others’ sin as well.
The problem isn’t hatred of sin. The problem comes when our hatred of sin leads us to scorn sinners. When we lack the grace to grieve for sinners, take compassion on them, and pray for them, we lack the love of Jesus.
Similarly, the problem with the other side isn’t love for sinners. The problem comes with our acceptance of their sinfulness. When we deny sinners the truth about their actions—that they need to seek treatment and healing—we lack the love of Jesus.
Can sinners who need to repent still be of sacred worth?
The problem for all of us is that we believe it’s impossible to tell someone she is of sacred worth and that her actions are sinful and require repentance. Over and over, I’ve watched Christian leaders claim that these two statements contradict each other, or at least create an ambiguity. We must choose—deny the sin or deny the sinner.
The miracle of God’s love is that he makes both claims at once. In our sinfulness—not after—we are of sacred worth. At the same time, God calls us out of our sinfulness into a repentant and righteous life before God. By his grace, he empowers us to repent and live holy lives.
Full of grace. Full of truth. Compromise on neither.