Getting Clear About Sin


One of the frustrations we frequently encounter as we seek to share the gospel of Jesus in an increasingly post-Christian world is the rejection of a gospel that sounds quite unlike the one we are trying to articulate. Being effective missionaries requires us to evaluate how Christian concepts and doctrines are being understood by the people around us. And the fact that many are familiar with some of our key terms creates quite a challenge for us as we aim to make the gospel clear.

Take the doctrine of sin, for example. Sin is a core term in the Christian faith. Without a proper understanding of sin, we will never have a proper view of God or the cross of Christ or the meaning of the resurrection. Without a proper view of sin, we’ll never understand salvation, and the good news the gospel tells will fall flat.

Sin Is Bad

But the word sin has not disappeared from our cultural lexicon. On one news podcast I listen to frequently, I hear the word come up time and time again. What do the podcasters mean when they use the word? Sin is clearly something they see to be disgusting and horrific. But there’s a not-too-subtle assumption behind their use of the word that we need to notice and correct.

The assumption is this: sin, though it be a horrible, deplorable, undeniably awful act, is always viewed in its effects upon other human beings. The result is that the evil of sin is measured by our own ever-changing, relativistic moral standards rather than by the sure and certain standard of a holy God, to whom we must all give an account. This explains why non-Christians and other skeptics have no problem referring to certain forms of moral evil as “sins” (such as white supremacy or sexual predation) but scoff when Christians use this term to describe homosexual sex or the act of abortion. So long as “sin” is a term reserved only for the most obvious, non-debatable moral evils committed against humanity, we will continue to face a huge obstacle in making the gospel clear to our neighbors.

We Are Sinners

So what can be done, besides trying to explain more forcefully that when we use the term sin, we mean first and foremost those crimes and offenses against God and his holy standards? One thing we can do is to use the term more frequently in reference to ourselves. We can clarify the Christian definition of sin all day long, but if in practice we seem to deny our own sinfulness, we will continue to contribute to the impression that “sin” is a term appropriate only for the most agreed upon evil in our news feeds.

We need to recover a healthy view of our own sinfulness. While a healthy view does not lead us to wallow in shame when we have already been forgiven by God, it also does not minimize or excuse our sin that necessitated that forgiveness in the first place. To freely confess that we are the most despicable moral creatures on earth encourages us to hold on to Christ as our only hope. It allows us to proclaim the good news.

Sin Explains It All

While one does not usually think of himself as evil in relation to other people, the Christian knows that apart from Christ this is precisely what we are in relation to God. We are sinners, yes, the guiltiest of them all, because of the crimes we have committed against our Creator. And this is a greater moral outrage than any crime we can dream of committing against another human being. It explains, in fact, where the most recognizable forms of human evil come from. If we’ll allow it, it will explain more, including everything that is wrong in human society.

And that’s because what the doctrine of sin tells us is not that there are some absolute wrongs in our world and that some people are “sinners” because they commit so many of those wrongs. What it tells us is that we are all evil, and that until we find relief from the guilt that plagues every last one of us, we will go on being outraged at the “sins” of others while finding a way to excuse ourselves for our own.

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