Does God hate the sin and love the sinner? We have seen it is more biblical to say that God both loves and hates the sinner. Several theologians have suggested just that.
Augustus Strong wrote, “These passages show that God loves the same persons whom he hates. It is not true that he hates the sin, but loves the sinner; he both hates and loves the sinner himself, hates him as he is a living and wilful antagonist of truth and holiness, loves him as he is a creature capable of good and ruined by his transgression.”
D. A. Carson put it thus: “Thus there is nothing intrinsically impossible about wrath and love being directed toward the same individual or people at once. 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.”
Even John Calvin saw that both were possible. “All of us therefore, have that within which deserves the hatred of God. Hence, in respect, first, of our corrupt nature; and, secondly, of the depraved conduct following upon it, we are all offensive to God, guilty in his sight, and by nature the children of hell. But as the Lord wills not to destroy in us that which is his own, he still finds something in us which in kindness he can love.”
The best harmony of the biblical evidence is the notion that God is able to love and hate a sinner at the same time.
Of course, this solution raises its own questions. If God is infinite in His essence and immutable as to His nature, then each of His attributes, including love or hate, must be infinite and without growth or diminution. How then could God love sinners infinitely and hate them infinitely at the same time? To love and hate a person infinitely would seem to cancel each other out. Further, are we to assume that God has the same infinite love and hatred for a believer that He has for an unbeliever, or for Satan himself? How was Daniel “greatly loved” (Dn 9:23) more than anyone else? To summarise the questions, if an infinite God loves and hates at the same time, how can there be any degree to His love and hatred of individuals, as various Scriptures seem to suggest is the case?
The best answer is that a person can be more or less identified with his sin. This is probably the idea behind John’s statement that “he who is born of God does not sin” (1 Jn 5:18). One born of God is not thoroughly identified with sin as a practice, even though he still sins (1 Jn 1:8-10). Once justified, the believer is more identified with Christ than he can ever be with the old detestable nature. Justification locates a sinner in the centre-sphere of God’s pleasure: His Son. God may be angry with a justified sinner for his sin, but Christ’s intercessory work means that the child of God is ever accepted in the Beloved (Eph 1:6). Indeed, progressive sanctification apparently moves one in the direction of ever-opening vistas of knowing the love of God, precisely because one is becoming more identified with what God loves (Eph 3:16-19).
On the other hand, an unregenerate person may be on a trajectory that drives him ever deeper into union with his sinful nature, making his sin and his person increasingly indistinguishable. He does not simply commit sin, he delights in it (Rom 1:32). There comes a point when people are guilty of such “extended, hardened, high-handed lovelessness” of God, that they come under a curse. When one thinks of extreme examples of human evil like Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot, one does not find it hard to consider their very persons as hateful, because they had become so identified with their evil deeds. To take it one step further, very few people shrink at the idea that God hates Satan. This is probably because Satan is so closely associated with his evil, that to hate the sin and the sinful being are almost the same thing, in his case.
God’s infinite love for His own image within human beings and His infinite hatred of sin in them means He cannot grow in love or hatred towards humans. Thus is not to suggest that God’s love does not truly respond to human behaviour. Instead, the trajectory of sinners towards sin or away from it drives them to be more or less identified with God’s wrath. God’s infinite love or hatred does not change, but as sinners move in respect to His holy nature, they are more or less identified with His hatred.
Finally, as Stephen Charnock put it, “punishment is not the primary intention of God.” God’s hatred only functions to preserve what He loves. Though God’s love is infinite, He values some things more than others. Uppermost in His affections is His own glory. Therefore, if sinners become so identified with their sin that they stand fundamentally in opposition to God’s glory, God’s love for His own glory will manifest itself in punitive hatred for those sinners’ rebellion, more so than in His love for His remaining and marred image in those sinners. Indeed, a marred mirror of God is all at once a cause for love and anger in God.