How do you talk about sin?

If you want to share the gospel, you need to talk about sin. If you don’t know that you’re a sinner, you won’t know that you need a saviour. You won’t get why you deserve judgment. And you won’t care about repentance. So how do you talk about sin? How do you get someone to realise that they are ‘the bad guy’?

Last week, Billie Eilish topped this year’s Triple J’s Hottest 100 with her track “Bad Guy.”[1]

The song picks up on the common theme (albeit sarcastically) that being ‘bad’ is cool. Bad is sexy. Bad is fun. It’s an idea as old as Eve (Gen 3:6). People know that they’re not perfect. They even know that they do bad things. But they don’t care. They brag about being bad. Because being bad feels good. Duh.

In the past our culture rebelled against Christianity, but it never doubted that Christian morals were good. Now, Christian morality is increasingly seen as bad and harmful.

But today, being bad doesn’t just feel good. Being bad is good. And being good is now bad. In the past our culture rebelled against Christianity, but it never doubted that Christian morals were good. This is not the case anymore. Christian morality is increasingly seen as bad and harmful. Christians who were once thought of as good but boring are now seen as hateful and bigoted. We used to be Ned Flanders—now we’re Mr Burns. At the same time, being bad (as the Bible would define it) is now often seen as morally good.  We are witnessing the rise of an ugly self-righteousness. Virtue signalling has replaced virtue, so that today a ‘good person’ is simply someone who believes in the right causes and likes the right posts. They’re now the good guys. Being bad is good. Duh.

And so, in a culture where bad feels good and bad is good, how do you talk about sin?

Losing Traction or Losing the Plot

My standard approach to talking about sin has been to talk about our guilt before God. Appealing to God’s high standard (Matthew 5:21-22) or the wickedness of our heart (Mark 7:14-15), I try and help people see that they are far worse than they imagine. The problem with this approach is that it assumes that it’s bad to be bad. It still tends to gain traction with those from a religious background, particularly migrants. But it loses traction with others—particularly young people. After all, why would someone who thinks that bad is good agree that they are guilty?

This is not a new problem, and for decades pastors and evangelists have tried new approaches to gain traction with their hearers. One way has been to emphasise the consequences of sin rather than our guilt before God. Appealing to God’s good plan for your life or the way that sin has made a mess of your life, the evangelist helps people see that sin is harmful and that God’s way is best. This immediately connects with people and speaks to their felt needs. It gains serious traction! But there is a problem. Whilst this approach might convince someone that sin is bad for them, it doesn’t show them that they are bad. There is no sense of guilt. And if I have no real understanding of guilt, then judgment doesn’t make sense. Why on earth would God punish me (and so severely!) simply because I made a mess of my life? And if judgment makes no sense, then the cross makes no sense. Why did Jesus have to die (and so horrifically!) in order for me to have a great life again? And so, in an attempt to gain traction with people when talking about sin, we lose the whole plot of the gospel.

So, what’s the answer?

Start with God, Not Sin

When Isaiah saw the glory of God in the temple, he cried,

Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts! (Isaiah 6:5)

When Simon Peter witnessed Jesus’ miracle in catching so many fish, he begged,

Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man. (Luke 5:8)

In both instances, knowledge of sin comes with knowledge of God.  As they beheld the glory of God, they saw in themselves their own unworthiness and unholiness.  Seeing God showed them who they really were. 

John Calvin makes this point early on in his Institutes when he argues that man can never truly know himself until he contemplates the face of God. He writes:

So long as we do not look beyond the earth, we are quite pleased with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue; we address ourselves in the most flattering terms, and seem only less than demigods. But should we once begin to raise our thoughts to God, and reflect what kind of Being he is…what formerly delighted us by its false show of righteousness will become polluted with the greatest iniquity; what strangely imposed upon us under the name of wisdom will disgust by its extreme folly; and what presented the appearance of virtuous energy will be condemned as the most miserable impotence. (Institutes, 1.1.2)

In other words, knowledge of sin comes with knowledge of God.  This is important as we note the shift in our culture.  Our culture’s problem is not primarily that they don’t understand sin.  It’s that they don’t understand God.  They have less and less of an idea of who God is and what He is like.  That is why they don’t understand sin.  And so, if we want to talk to people about sin, we need to also talk to them about God. 

Knowledge of sin comes after knowledge of God. Our culture’s problem is not primarily that they don’t understand sin. It’s that they don’t understand God.

What many people forget when sharing Two Ways To Live is that each box is dependent on the one before. Box 2 (sin) is dependent on first teaching box 1 (God). If we want people to accept that they are rebelling against God, they must understand that God is the loving ruler of the world. The bible always explains our rebellion in reference to God. He has established his Messiah on Zion (Psalm 2:6) and will punish those who stand against Him (Psalm 2:8-9). If we want to understand sin as rebellion, we also need to see the glory and goodness of King Jesus, whom we are rebelling against. Otherwise, we won’t get any traction. Rebellion won’t sound that bad.

One of the most popular ways to gain traction with people today is to talk about sin as idolatry.  Made popular by Tim Keller, this approach points out the consequences of living for false gods, whether they be money, success, relationships, or glory.  But what some people forget when taking this approach is to explain idolatry in reference to God.  The great offence of idolatry is not that it simply ruins lives, but that we have betrayed our God.  God commands us not to make idols because He is a ‘jealous God’ (Ex 20:5).  Idolatry is adultery (Hos 4:12-14).  If we don’t explain idolatry in reference to God, the gospel will seem like nothing more than pop-psychology and judgment will make no sense.  Idolatry will sound bad for us, but it won’t sound bad

Evangelists will often argue over the best way to talk about sin or the best order to explain the gospel.  In truth, there are any number of biblical approaches.  And we should be innovative and creative in the way we explain them.  But no matter how we talk about sin, we also need to talk about God.  He is the one I’m sinning against, and it is when I see him that I will see my sin.

Then I might realise that I’m the bad guy.  Duh. 

[1] I remember when I used to like Triple J’s Hottest 100 (you can listen to the ’97 album on YouTube here).