Preaching Articles

It’s an everyday observation now: Jesus was a friend to sinners. I read or hear it nearly everywhere I turn—so much, in fact, I wonder if we’ve thought it through completely. Let’s give it a try today:

One of the most amazing (and challenging) things about Jesus is he's a friend to sinners, but no friend to sin. Jesus is amazing because of his great love for everyone; he lived, died, and rose again for everyone. Jesus is challenging because he never once ignored the dreadful impact of sin. Even so: sinners found Jesus attractive. They were drawn to him.

Years ago I gave up on the phrase “Love the sinner, hate the sin” because it was too easy to repeat the phrase and ignore the instruction. In practice, this tired old phrase was more about hating the sin and rarely about loving the sinner. I’ve never seen anyone attracted to a church that proclaimed: “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” It’s like saying, “We love you but we find your actions revolting and ugly.”

But now the cultural tide has shifted to “Love the sinner, ignore the sin.” This doesn’t help either: ignoring sin is like ignoring cancer. (Churches would never say this phrase out loud but it is frequently lived out before our eyes.) Ignoring sin is like saying, “God loves you, and we really don’t care whether you are headed for heartbreak or destruction.”

So then, how should we see—and talk about—sin? I have four suggestions, not for churches, but for each student of Jesus:

First, every student of Jesus must see sin as something serious: deadly serious. Jesus understood the dangers of sin so acutely he sacrificed his very life to hold back the consequences of sin. To ignore sin is to ignore the grave results of sin, not only in the next life, but in this life as well.

Second, we must separate sin from legalism. To the degree we see sin as “rule-breaking” we will see God as merely a Judge. Make no mistake, God is a Judge, and God is the only proper Judge—but he is far more than a Judge. He is nearly everything and everyone in the courtroom: the judge, the jury, the witness, the attorney, and even the accused. He is everything except the Accuser. God's courtroom is ultimately a place of freedom. This is the transformation we need: to see the meaning of sin more as "I'm in trouble" rather than "I'm in trouble with God."

Third, we must see sin as a sickness, a Pandora-virus loosed upon creation from nearly the very beginning. Sin is a cancer of the soul, and obesity of the will, and a mental illness. Sin is caught, and it is taught. It is the result of heredity and the result of behavior. To the degree we see sin as sickness we will see Jesus the Physician, and we will offer ourselves to him for his remedy. Jesus loves us fully, completely, utterly: so much he will pay any price in order to help us avoid the pain, cancer, and suffering of sin. If there is any hatred of sin, we should hate sin the way a parent hates the cancer in a child.

And finally, we must see sin as foolishness and vanity. Sin never satisfies; it only intensifies. Sin is like drinking salt water: those who drink will thirst again with a maddening thirst: greed leads to idolatry; rage leads to violence; and sensuality leads to hopelessness. The Book of Common Prayer instructs us to pray, “Have mercy upon us miserable sinners.” The reason we are miserable sinners is because sin makes us miserable. By contrast, a healthy relationship with the Creator means drinking deep of God’s Spirit, which satisfies and transforms us into a source of fresh water for others.

Imagine Jesus, the friend of sinners, sitting at a feast with tax collectors, drunkards, and prostitutes. He leans toward them all and says, “It’s OK: because you’re my friends I give you permission to ruin your life.” What kind of friend would Jesus be?

Ray Hollenbach helps pastors and churches navigate change. He's the founder of DEEPER Seminars, weekend leadership retreats focused on discipleship in the local church. His newest book is Deeper Grace, a guide to the connection between grace and spiritual maturity. Ray currently lives in central Kentucky, coaching and consulting church leaders. You can visit his blog at Students of Jesus.

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Robert Dewitt

commented on Nov 3, 2015

Great article, the only thing I would say is that when we call sin a sickness it sounds like something we don't make a choice about. After becoming a Christian sin is a personal choice we all make. Other than that tile the article is right on!

Edson Siwella

commented on Nov 3, 2015

God :hates sin but loves the sinner' is only . . well. . .good for kindergarten level understanding of God. "Jacob I loved; Esau I hated." (Malachi 1:3). . . and if there is no repentance even for Israel . . then Babylon . . . eternal punishment. . Hell itself. We need to respect the LORD God Almighty much much more seriously. . . .

Rachel Duart

commented on Nov 3, 2015

Jesus tells us in the beatitudes to forgive our enemies, love the unlovable, turn the other cheek, if someone steals our cloak, give him also our tunic. This sounds really nice! God's enemy is Satan, why doesn't God just "love" satan and "give" everything he created to satan? When is it all right to forget the "love your enemies" approach and enter into the "battle". I have been blessing my enemy and praying for this person, but this enemy only increases the vehemence of his attack upon me. All my godly annointed friends tell me I must "fight back" with lawyers and motions and court rooms ect. I have prayed about this situation (of three years duration) but henceforth, no movement (noticeable to me ) in the physical realm to indicate the angels' armies are winning in the invisible realm. Nobody has anything to offer that sounds biblical. physical battle when you get up off your knees and pick up the sword to smite your enemy?

Edward Hardee

commented on Nov 4, 2015

Rachel, This may be another Bible verse but has always helped me when I face opposition: 1 Peter 3:15-16 But sanctify the Lord God [20] in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear; (16) having a good conscience, that when they defame you as evildoers, those who revile your good conduct in Christ may be ashamed. Trust the Lord and lean on His understanding. Make sure your heart is right not just your head.

Chamron Phal

commented on Jul 27, 2019

Rachel, the God whom you trusts and loves knows your struggles and hurts. He cares deeply about you. You are His beloved daughter. I would encourage you to take time on your knees cry out to God for His justice. Because God himself is righteous and just. He will act on your behalf. He listens to your cry. He knows that you need His help. According to 1 Peter 2:21-23 tells us very clear how to respond in a good and godly ways. That's what I did to my former Khmer Rouge Communist back in Cambodia during the Killing Fields in 1975-1979. The key words in that passage is " Entrust every matters into God's hands who judges righteously. Blessings!

Karl Henderson

commented on Nov 3, 2015

Brilliant Article. Thanks Ray AND to the comments. Each has a very valid truth that enhances the article giving it more scope.

Carolyn Robertson

commented on Nov 4, 2015

Very thoughtful sermon. I agree that sin and evilness are signs of a sick soul that needs healing. We need to be compassionate but take the sin very seriously. I does escalate into an addiction or personality disorder and worse if Christians just ignore it. A church needs to have a loving place where people feel safe asking for help with sin as well as tools and mentors.

Matheus Motta Dos Santos

commented on Nov 25, 2015

I'm from Brazil and I very , very happy to read this kind of article that so much important to us.

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