Rick started coming to youth group with a girl he was dating at the time. I liked him immediately because he was a thoughtful kid who asked great questions. Also, he laughed at my jokes. We were on our winter retreat and a few of us returned to the cabin to put on some dry socks after enjoying the tubing hill. I came upon Rick in our cabin, and something made me pause to ask what he thought about all this “gospel stuff.” What ensued was nearly an hour-long conversation about how “just have more faith” wasn’t a sufficient answer to legitimate questions about faith and doubt. We also talked about the nature of sin, and what makes it so evil.
Rick is in college now, and I still get text messages from him about various philosophical questions he’s wrestling through. Recently, I realized many of these questions come down to a theology of sin. He’s still holding onto Jesus, but it’s difficult because everything in our culture teaches the law that, “If it makes you happy and doesn’t cause harm to others, then it’s good.” Books like Jean Twenge’s explain how teenagers view religion as “good” only to the degree it makes people happy.
When well-intentioned youth workers emphasize grace and mercy without any foundational understanding of sin, the gospel of grace is quickly trivialized as a message that’s only as deep as students’ internal feelings of guilt. Make the commitment never to talk about sin or judgment without proclaiming the gospel—but don’t assume your students understand what sin is or why God has declared it to merit eternal judgment (Matthew 13:47-50, Romans 6:23, Revelation 20:11-15).
Here are five truths that will help students think biblically about how the gospel rescues them from the power of sin.
Truth 1: Sin is cosmic treason against a Holy God
This is ground zero for understanding sin. God is holy and everything owes its being to him. As the holy Creator, he is completely worthy of all worship and obedience. Sin, however, is treason against his Lordship and goodness. Sin cries out, “I will have it my way!” Even worldly kings understand the severity of treason—it is an offense worthy of death (see Genesis 2:17 and Romans 6:23).
When we hear the argument that something is wrong only when it causes harm, we should ask, “Whose definition of harm?” What is considered harmful in one generation or to one culture is not necessarily considered harmful to another. This is why postmodernism has brought such moral relativism. If sin is defined by harm, and “harm vs. preference” is determined by each group within a culture, then sin becomes an illusion that’s used to force others to obey (see Nietzsche’s “The Will to Power”).
We need to help students draw the connection between the holiness of God and the evil of sin. So long as we allow sin to be a boogeyman that guilts students into confessions of faith or into attempts to “try harder” to be good, we will continue to lose students to the above secularized thinking about sin. Helping students confess their sin as rebellion against God’s holiness puts their sin in proper perspective, and adds fuel to the call of Romans 12:1, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice….”
Truth 2: Sin and Death always belong together.
Sin and death have always gone hand-in-hand. Wherever we see one, the other is also present. No sin, no death. This was true in the Garden of Eden, where there was no death until there was sin. It is true today, as every human being experiences various forms of death due to the effects of sin. And it will remain true in the New Heavens and New Earth where sin will be defeated and there will be no more death. The only time this connection seems to break down is on the cross, where the sinless one died for sinners. And yet, 2 Corinthians 5:21 declares, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
There is nothing new to the thought that “If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad” (Cheryl Crowe, here’s looking at you). But in the end, sin always leads to death. Yet it so often looks as if sin has no real consequences – so what’s the big deal, people ask. If being sexually unbound means more pleasure, it will seem incredibly harsh and unloving call it sinful. This is the struggle my friend Rick is facing in conversations with friends in college. Even though many teenagers won’t articulate their struggles this way, it’s a very real philosophy that undergirds their lives.
The span of time between sin and death can give the impression that no one is being harmed. Teenagers aren’t wired to think long-term. They need help to see that although no one seems harmed immediately, sin always brings death. Don’t give into fear-mongering, but do talk through real-world scenarios that demonstrate the effects of decisions made in the past.
Truth 3: Everyone is a sinner.
Romans 3:23 remains a go-to memory verse for many church kids. Despite its familiarity, how many of them have grasped its universality? We have all sinned and fallen short of God’s holy standard. We are all guilty of cosmic treason against our Creator, sentenced to death by our own actions. This is just and righteous. If God was fair, this would remain the sentence upon each human being.
The inherent goodness or evil of humanity is debated by philosophers of all stripes. We remain created in the image of God, thus retaining some inherent measure of goodness, though marred and twisted by sin. We are beautiful and dignified, “created but a little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:5) even while “all our deeds of righteousness are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6, Romans 3:10). The debate rages because one’s view depends on his or her doctrine of sin.
Allow students’ sin to open a conversation where they dig into the roots of temptation – “What was so tempting? Why do you think you’d do it all over again even though you feel so terrible right now?” It’s difficult to navigate these conversations without falling into the “We’re only human” minimalism trap on one side or the “We are terrible wretched sinners to the core” hellfire trap on the other. Address sin honestly, but let your attitude reflect Jeremiah 10:24, “Correct me, O LORD, but in justice; not in your anger, lest you bring me to nothing.”
Truth 4: God is sovereign without being the author of sin.
The opening chapters of Job show Satan coming before the Lord, receiving permission to do great evil. Jesus told Peter that Satan sought permission to “sift Peter like wheat” (Luke 22:31). God allowed the blind man to be born blind in order that God’s glory would be made known (John 9:1-3). Meanwhile James 1:13 clearly states, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.” It is objectively clear that a holy God cannot sin, though he does permit sin to exist… for now.
Among all the truths of Christianity, the reality of evil has posed the greatest challenge. Shying away from this reality only does two things: At best, it delays our students’ doubts until they are out of youth group. At worst, it communicates that we have no answers or biblical response. Rick has asked about this a lot. And as tempting as it is to reply, “We’ve talked about this already,” I get his repeated question. We want to lay blame, and there’s good reason why this is probably the greatest fire that fuels the Calvinist vs. Arminian debate.
This may not be the best topic for a devotion during your next junior high boys game night. But it would lead to some great conversations during small group sometime, with some well-placed questions that get students talking about questions they’re already thinking about in private. Allow students to wrestle with hard questions. Avoid clean and easy answers to incredibly difficult questions. Anyone who truly believes that evil and suffering are problems must believe in a Judgment Day. Don’t shy away from proclaiming that Christ has conquered sin and death. (For a resource on these conversations, see on “God, Evil, Suffering, and Teens.”)
Truth 5: Sin is great. God is greater.
We have the benefit of understanding sin through the lens of the New Covenant. Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). But remember this: The second Person of the Trinity becamehuman and died. Conquering sin and death was neither easy nor cheap. Christ was victorious, but his victory was costly. Sin is evil, and Satan is not to be toyed with. But rather than fearing Satan, we fear God—the same God who sent his Son to rescue the world, knowing what it would cost. God’s power and love and grace are endless.
Most of us have laughed at images shared on social media where Jesus and Satan arm-wrestle, asking their followers to determine who will win by sharing or liking the image. It’s a silly picture, but only because we all know people who live as if this is the reality. The devil is like a prowling lion seeking people to devour (1 Peter 4:8). We should not view him as Jesus’ equal, but we should be on guard.
It is precisely because we believe the gospel is good news that we are free to talk about sin without guilt or shame. Help students to recognize that from which Christ came to set them free. Proclaim the gospel with gusto. Invite students to discover the wellspring of life that gushes with grace for sinners who confess faith in Jesus. Resist the temptation to create a theological litmus test (“Do they understand sin enough? Do they understand the atonement properly?”) —that kind of ministry will always walk on its heels. Lean into the gospel at all times.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, Walter Arnold Kaufmann, and R. J. Hollingdale. The Will to Power, (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968.)