I’ve both heard and used the phrase, “love the sinner, hate the sin.” And while I’ve grown far less fond of it, my critique has less to do with its intrinsic contradiction and more to do with the fact that I’ve seldom heard it used (or used it myself) in any kind of seriousness; I generally don’t intent to love the person in question at all.
Of course, it’s problematic to make any phrase a mantra of the Christian life when it wasn’t something Jesus said. Jesus did say something like it when He said “Love your neighbor” which comes with no qualification. But I think “love the sinner, hate the sin” has more similarity to another, well known teaching of Jesus:
“Love your enemies.”
The similarity, as I see it, is that both phrases/teachings share an intrinsic contradiction. If I love someone, they may still consider me an enemy, but my love for that person ought to make that same thing impossible for me. An enemy is someone I want to see fail, someone I must beat or destroy. In love, the way Jesus taught and lived it, I don’t stand against that person anymore, as is the posture of enemies. Instead, I am for them and want good for them.
I see “love the sinner, hate the sin” similarly. If I truly love someone, I’m likely not seeing them as primarily a sinner. In fact, I am convinced that seeing someone in a truly loving and Christian way means seeing her as primarily beloved of God; our differences and especially our faults, come second… at least.
And so, while I would rather friends cease from using the phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin” in exchange for the actual teachings of Jesus, I’m almost equally happy to hear and see it used in seriousness. In other words: what if I meant it when I said it? What if I took that charge to love someone I saw as a sinner? And what if that love transformed my vision (as true love does) and I no longer saw that person as primarily a sinner, but a whole person; conflicted and conflicting but above all a beloved child of God?
I think that would change everything… beginning with me.