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?