Love the Sinner — by Hating His Sin

If you stood as a German soldier that day overlooking Normandy beach, you might have blinked several times. Amidst the bloodiest of invasions, when bullets reportedly flew in such volume as to actually create wind, one weaponless, heavyset man, limped up and down the beach striking his fellow soldiers with his cane. He hit the men repeatedly, yelled frantically, and pointed feverishly. What was he doing?

Saving their lives.

After horribly spraining his ankle upon arrival, the self-reportedly out of shape Captain Finke hobbled to shore to find many of his soldiers taking cover in a death trap. Petrified, they took shelter behind whatever they could find — in this case, tall planks the size of telephone poles with explosive devices secured to the top of them. As men fell beside him, as his men crouched before him, he stood up and struck his men, individual by individual, commanding them to press on to a bank several hundred yards away.

But why did he hit them? If he yelled without using the cane, “each man could pretend that he was talking to someone else. But if he hit a man personally with the cane, there would then be no ambiguity — get moving or else” (The Dead and Those About to Die, 83). So, he struck them — wack, wack, wack — and yelled, “Come on! Get up! Go on!” Some did not move — they were already dead. But the living, having been generally called and personally admonished, snapped out of it and went on to better cover. Captain Finke’s vigilance saved many lives that day.

Safe Spaces for Sin

If Captain Finke was needed at Normandy, how much more might we need his kind today in our pulpits, pews, and accountability groups? We need more men and women who do not fear making someone uncomfortable in order to protect their soul.

Of course, this does not justify becoming brash, graceless, and harsh. But we also want to avoid creating safe spaces for sin in our fellowship where the cane of specificity is outlawed, even when used to get one another to safety. God, save us from nurturing spaces where we never address individuals, call all standards “legalistic,” secretly coddle our own iniquity, and think wrongly about humility. Consider these four dangers in turn.

1. Never Single Anyone Out

I know by experience — by witnessing it, receiving it, and doing it — that we can lighten our correction by letting the person know that we are, of course, all sinners. Our vocabulary during hard conversations abandons the second-person singular, choosing the much safer first-person plural. We need to stop indulging in pornography. We need to read the Bible more. We need to not live harshly with our wives. And so we must, as Captain Finke’s soldiers needed to press on to greater cover.

“I have coddled others’ sin because I secretly wanted others to coddle mine.”

At first glance, only talking about our sin in group phraseology can seem loving — because it can be. Context is crucial. Seldom is it appropriate to call out a brother publicly, by name, in big group settings (Galatians 2:11–13). The point is not to give the overzealous among us license to strike his brother carelessly, but to chafe at Christian circles — especially accountability groups — where sharp tools are never allowed, even for surgery. Love, at times, will express itself simply, baldly, directly: “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:5–7). “Get up, press on, keep going!”

I can still remember my shock when a brother, having taken me aside, looked me in the eye and said, “Brother, your negligence of God’s word is not okay. You need to be looking to Christ. How can I help you pursue him with greater discipline this week?” He did not soften it by confessing how undisciplined he had been that week. He did not join me as I crouched by my pole: he called me onward towards Christ (Hebrews 12:1–2). And he offered to help get me there. He wounded me with the loving cane of reproof, reminded me of gospel grace, and offered to help me along the way. I need such men in my life. We all do.

2. Call All Standards ‘Legalistic’

I have been around Christians who appear to believe that they are too gospel-centered to rebuke, correct, or say a hard word to another believer. All standards are law and legalism, an offense to our atmosphere of grace. We need to woo the sinner from sin with understanding and love, not create divisions with strong words and specific accountability.

Such a person may have forgotten what is at stake:

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. (Hebrews 3:12–14)

Regular exhortation is necessary because sin is deceitful and drags us from the living God. It is no coincidence that the man who seeks his sinful desires isolates himself (Proverbs 18:1) — he does not want to hear such exhortations or be held to any standards. Do not aid and abet the enemy, flesh, and the world by calling essential Christian disciplines and specific exhortations “legalism.” Rather, grow beyond what John Piper calls “the adolescent stage that thinks good habits are legalism.” As long as each day is still called “today,” it is a day to exhort and be exhorted to faith, repentance, love, and good works.

3. Secretly Coddle Your Own Sin

I know that I have shielded myself from specificity because I knew innately the principle Jesus taught: the measure we use to judge others will be applied to us (Luke 6:38). We know not to throw boomerangs we do not wish to return.

“Humility does not shrink back from calling sin sin. Pride does.”

I did not want high standards placed on my behavior, so I rendered low standards. I have coddled others’ sin because I secretly wanted others to coddle mine. This is a sick form of doing unto others as you would have them do for you.

To speak frankly and challengingly requires courage that stems from a hatred of one’s own sins first. We deal with specks and logs in our eyes to ready us to speak lovingly and non-hypocritically to the logs and specks in our brothers’. And we welcome it when they return the favor.

4. Think Wrongly About Humility

Humility does not shrink back from calling sin sin; pride does. A love for one’s own reputation, not a love for another brother’s soul, keeps us from “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). We learn a different way from three of the humblest men in Scripture: John the Baptist, Moses, and Jesus.

John the Baptist, a man born with the Spirit, who spoke of not being worthy to untie Jesus’s sandal, spoke confrontationally of others’ sin. The same man who said that Jesus must increase (and he must decrease) would publicly call out, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:7–8).

Moses, the meekest man on earth (Numbers 12:3), constantly called the people to repentance over their grumbling and stubbornness. “Circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn” (Deuteronomy 10:16). After the golden calf incident, he even burned the gold down to make the people drink their treachery (Exodus 32:20).

Finally, Jesus, the man of humility who cracked a whip in the temple, named names, and wasn’t afraid to call his own disciple “Satan” when Peter set his mind on the things of man (Mark 8:33). Humility loves others enough to make them uncomfortable when needed.

Love the Sinner by Hating His Sin

Do we no longer cherish the wounds of a friend? Have we, putting our identity on the shifting sand of our performance, become too brittle for correction? Do we coddle the evils our Lord gave his life to purge from our hearts and lives? “Whoever hates reproof will die” (Proverbs 15:10); he despises himself (Proverbs 15:31–32) and leads himself and others astray (Proverbs 10:17).

“We do not wound to cause harm. We wound as the Almighty does: to bind up and heal.”

We love the sinner by hating his sin. We hate our own sin, first and foremost, and we take others’ sin seriously because we take their eternal good seriously. We do not wound to cause harm. We wound as the Almighty does: to bind up and heal (Job 5:17–18).

So, with earnest prayer and careful discernment, we patiently and lovingly address individuals, build good habits together, invite others to hate our sin, and think rightfully about humility. We confront each other as we are tempted to crouch behind our telephone poles and call each other onwards towards greater shores.