Last week, I found myself sitting in a circle with 19 other people, three of whom were students from our campus ministry. The other 15 were members of a different student organization, one that offers community built upon a secular worldview.
Jim, our BCM president, had been personally invited to represent Christianity in a night of interfaith dialogue. The invitation was a product of Jim’s steadfast and intentional engagement with people he knows believe differently than him.
When the invitation came, Jim knew immediately that he wanted to make sure the Gospel was heard that night. He used Scripture and personal testimony to speak of God’s grace towards sinners through Jesus Christ.
I was proud of his boldness and clarity, yet I could see others shifting in their seats. Why? While I heard the good news of grace in Jim’s words, the others’ ears were stopped up at the first mention of the word “sin.”
Knowing what the cultural conversation is like today, I can’t say that I was all that surprised.
Which do you think sounds more appealing to most people: “You’re perfect the way you are,” or “You’re a sinner in desperate need of a Savior”? The former might appeal more, but which one sounds more accurate?
As a believer, I know I’m biased. Yet, I can’t help but ask myself the question: Do we really have to convince people of the reality of sin?
Honestly, I don’t think so. Every person in the circle admitted that things are not always as they should be. Each one had been hurt by another, and each one had hurt another.
Virtually all agree on the reality of sin, but major disagreements arise over the nature of sin. If a non-Christian uses the term “sin,”, he or she would likely be talking about a mistake or oversight, something that could easily be fixed with a bit more thoughtfulness or education.
Christians, on the other hand, understand the problem is much deeper than this. Yes, thoughtfulness helps us avoid sinning. Ignorance, as Paul teaches, is certainly part of the issue.
Yet he reminds us that ignorance is the byproduct of hard-heartedness (Eph. 4:18). In other words, sin isn’t just something we do; it’s who we are at our core apart from Christ.
Within our group that night, everyone had been raised in homes at least loosely connected to Christianity. Each had heard the word “sin” before.
Because of this, when they heard it again, instead of calling to mind passages of Scriptures and didactic sermons, they remember personal experiences.
The word takes them back to a specific time and place.
According to multiple testimonies that night, the word “sin” brings up memories of coming out as gay to their church friends and the subsequent rejection. It recalls years spent in self-hatred or even self-harming. It reminds them of the pastor who spent weeks harping on sin, but then was caught in an adulterous relationship with the church secretary.
The point I’m trying to make here is that while “God” is the heaviest three-letter word I know, “sin” has to be the second heaviest. It comes with a great deal of baggage.
We must be careful of throwing out such a loaded word without offering a thorough explanation of what we mean. But how many of us are able to do so?
In The Reason for God, Tim Keller argues that “the concept of ‘sin’ is offensive or ludicrous to many…because we don’t understand what Christians mean by the term” (166).
It seems that we often come up short in our explanation of sin. What we need is a more robust understanding of sin that goes beyond “doing bad things.”
A more thorough grasp of this doctrine will strengthen our ability to communicate it without placing unnecessary stumbling blocks before our hearers.
We need to be able to teach the depth of our depravity without losing the truth that all humans bear the divine image, making every person valuable and worthy of dignity. We must be ready to teach about God’s attitude towards sin while holding fast to God’s mercy towards sinners.
In whatever we do, we must not end with sin. A robust understanding of sin takes us to a deeper understanding and treasuring of God’s grace.
One way to help others rightly understand sin is to explain it within the context of the biblical story. Scripture opens with God purposefully creating everything good.
Soon after, the good creation rebels against its good Creator. Humans stop trusting God, reject His good gifts and seek to live according to their own selfish desires. Peace is forfeited, chaos ensues, and death becomes a reality, but not before God promises to defeat sin in the end.
Generations pass with God maintaining relationship with sinners through a temporary, sacrificial system, but ultimate rescue from sin doesn’t appear until Jesus Christ.
From heaven to earth, Jesus Christ comes in mercy to reconcile sinners back to the Father through His death. Through faith in Christ, sinners are freed from both the penalty and power of sin.
In the resurrection of Christ, God shows that sin is conquered, and renewal has begun. In the present age, although Christians still struggle with sin, God the Spirit enables His children to fight against their old flesh.
All of creation awaits the return of Christ when sin and its effects are forever banished. Then God will dwell in peace with His people again.
Explaining sin in this manner reduces the chance of our hearers misinterpreting sin as hatred, self-righteousness, or superficial.
Truthfully, the atheists and agnostics, Wiccans and neo-pagans who were in the circle showed great hospitality to us that night, and they are cautiously becoming our friends.
None repented that night because none rightly understood the depth of our rebellion as humans.
Sometimes we say, “You’re a sinner,” and others hear, “I hate you.” Sometimes we talk about sin, and others hear, “I’m better than you.” Other times we mention sin and people hear, “You’ve got a couple of things you need to work on.”
Still, there is a strong possibility that others may hear us talk about sin and know precisely what we mean, yet still reject the call to repent.
If so, God is still glorified. Don’t throw the word away. Keep the three-letter word. People need to know exactly what we mean by it. After all, talking about sin isn’t a roadblock to the Gospel; it’s the only pathway that can get us there.