A Pastoral Letter
Dear Offended Brother,
I understand why you would take offense at the idea that God actually hates unrepentant sinners. We never talk that way these days, and in fact many Christians and almost all non-Christians would reject the idea out of hand. When I said that God “hated us before we became Christians” I was referring to the idea that outside of Christ, before our conversion, before the Lord separates us from our sin, we are under the actual wrath of God, His real anger (Rom.1:18; Eph.2:1-3). I did not say, nor do I mean, that God has nothing but hatred for sinners. He has other feelings toward them as well. But I did want to clarify that wrath is personal, eternal, divine anger directed at people. We can use the term “hate” for this judicial emotion because it is one of several terms the Bible itself uses (Ps.5:5, 21:9, 78:59) and the synonym “wrath” conveys precisely the same reality (Ps.79:6; 2 Thess.1:5-10). I know it is shocking to put it the way I did. Yet it is not inaccurate to refer to unrepentant sinners as under God’s hatred for their sin. In Ephesians 2:1-3 Paul includes himself as a religious Jew, a very godly man by all outward evidence. He says that we all, before our conversion, were “Children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Elsewhere he says that we (including himself again) were sinners and enemies of God prior to conversion (Rom.5:6-11). These are strong terms. If they don’t mean that God is truly angry at us, then they don’t mean anything at all. John concurs in John 3:36, where he writes, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” This can only mean that people are under God’s personal wrath until they repent and trust the Lord Jesus Christ.
On the other hand, as I tried to clarify, God also says he loves us so much that He sent His Son (Jn.3:16; Eph.2:4-11 and many other places). What’s that about? How is it that the Bible says God hates sinners and loves them at the same time? I’ll quote at length D. A. Carson, one of the best-known evangelical theologians of our day:
“How, then, should the love of God and the wrath of God be understood to relate to each other? One evangelical cliché has it that God hates the sin but loves the sinner. There is a small element of truth in these words: God has nothing but hate for the sin, but it would be wrong to conclude that God has nothing but hate for the sinner. A difference must be maintained between God’s view of sin and his view of the sinner. Nevertheless the cliché (God hates the sin but loves the sinner) is false on the face of it and should be abandoned. Fourteen times in the first fifty psalms alone, we are told that God hates the sinner, his wrath is on the liar, and so forth. In the Bible, the wrath of God rests both on the sin (Rom.1:18) and on the sinner (John 3:36).
Our problem, in part, is that in human experience wrath and love normally abide in mutually exclusive compartments. Love drives wrath out, or wrath drives love out. We come closest to bringing them together, perhaps, in our responses to a wayward act by one of our children, but normally we do not think that a wrathful person is loving.
But this is not the way it is with God. God’s wrath is not an implacable, blind rage. However emotional it may be, it is an entirely reasonable and willed response to offenses against his holiness. But his love … wells up amidst his perfections and is not generated by the loveliness of the loved. Thus there is nothing intrinsically impossible about wrath and love being directed toward the same individual or people at the same time. God in his perfections must be wrathful against his rebel image-bearers, for they have offended him; God in his perfections must be loving toward his rebel image-bearers, for he is that kind of God.” (Emphasis his) D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God [Crossway Books, 2000] p.69
In much (not all) American preaching, the love of God is declared without the dark biblical backdrop of the real wrath of God. The result is a huge mass of unconverted people who do not realize that their souls are in jeopardy and a large number of possibly converted people who are not surprised or grateful for the love of God in Christ. They are not amazed by grace; they are shocked and offended by judgment against their sin. They expect God to love them because they are lovable (the mantra of western society is that all people are basically good) and are offended to hear that this is not the case, that He loves us because He is loving. When they hear that God loves sinners they think, “Well, what’s not to love?” Yet, it is precisely the juxtaposition of God’s righteous personal anger and his amazing sacrificial grace in Christ that the Spirit uses to transform people (Rom.5:6-11; 7:21-8:4; Eph.2:1-11; 1 Jn.4:10 and many others).
So I apologize for causing offense or confusion by my wording. And I thank you for asking for clarification because it forces us to think clearly. I hope that clarity is the result of my offering here.
Grace and Peace,