The problem with calling sin “sin” (and some alternatives).

July 30, 2018 | Written by Jonathan Cleveland

Formation is a series of posts about ideas and truths God is using to shape us at Pulpit Rock.

I was recently sipping some coffee and listening to a sermon from a friend of mine who pastors at another church. I heard him say something that just about made me do a spit take with my Cortado.

He said: “Most churches are afraid to talk about sin these days. But today we are going to go there, and we are going to call sin ‘sin’”

My mind scrolled through a handful of thoughts and feelings:

I was defensive: “Why is he throwing other churches under the bus. We aren’t afraid to talk about sin at Pulpit Rock.”
I was convicted: “Maybe my next sermon should be about sin. Maybe I should just list sins people are doing and call them ‘sins’”
I was confused: “Do churches really have a reputation of being afraid to talk about sin? Is that something people say about us?”

‘The problem I have with church is, no one ever tells me I’m sinning’ –No One Ever

But in the midst of my emotional reaction to my friend’s statement. I recognized a very real issue facing us as believers. I would describe it this way:

  • People don’t really like it when we talk about sin.
  • In response to this, some churches downplay the sin issue in an effort to love people.
  • Other churches talk about sin a lot and perceive any unwillingness to talk about sin as fear.

Meanwhile, there are all of us just trying to follow Jesus and do what he asks. And we may be left with these very legitimate questions:

                  Are we supposed to call out sin?

                  Is our role in culture to call sin ‘sin’?

                  And if we don’t, is it just because we are afraid?

I wanted to offer a few thoughts and truths that God is using to shape me on this issue. Especially as I consider our voice to the world around us.

1. As a general rule, spiritually healthy people are more concerned about their own sin than other’s sins.

This may seem like an oversimplification, but it is a good place to start. When someone else’s sin bothers us – that is not necessarily a sign of spiritual maturity. Sometimes we are bothered by other’s sins and want to call them out… because it is a convenient strategy for ignoring our own sin (Jesus went on record about this Matthew 7:3-5)

2. Here is a good question: Does calling sin ‘sin’ help anyone stop sinning, or does it just make us feel better that we aren’t doing that sin?

If the reason most people sin is that they are unaware that their behaviors, attitudes and lifestyle are sinful, then calling things sinful would be tremendously helpful. But the truth is, I don’t know if calling out sin has ever resulted in less sin. If you read John 8:1-11 it is a master class in “calling out sin” vs. “helping someone with their sin.” We are called to help people. That should guide our decisions about calling sin ‘sin.’

3. Jesus did call out sin in two ways:

  • He called out religious self-righteousness ( for example Matthew 23:1-36)
  • He elevated the standard of righteousness to utter perfection (Matthew 5:17-30, 43-48)

When we focus on calling out sin we risk self-righteousness. But we also risk reducing God’s standard of righteousness to something attainable by us. Jesus did the opposite. He graciously explained true righteousness is only attainable by him. He is our righteousness. Our efforts at not sinning are inadequate.

4. The focus of Jesus ministry was not calling out sin. It was announcing the Kingdom.

Matthew 4:17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

The word repent is not just about ceasing from sin. It is about a wholistic turning from our kingdom to the Kingdom of Heaven. It is invitational not confrontational. And it is fundamentally good news. Inviting people to the Kingdom of God is always better than calling sin ‘sin.’

5. Attacking sin is always less Christlike than announcing and demonstrating love.

Jesus makes it clear that sin is not wrong because it is so bad, it is wrong because it is unloving (Matthew 22:37-40, John 13:34-35). So the antidote to sin is not “stop being bad and start being good.” The antidote is learning to experience and walk in the love of Jesus. Sin is not fundamentally a moral issue, it is a relational one. Consequently, sin can only truly be dealt with in the context of a loving relationship.

So, if you’ve ever felt guilty because you don’t talk about sin enough with your friends. Realize you are in good company. Jesus was frequently criticized for not calling out sin. And realize at Pulpit Rock, we are wrestling with this too.

Like a lot of things, these issues become a little clearer when we look at Jesus. He is an anchor that keeps us from getting pulled this way and that by our culture, or even by reactions to our culture from well-meaning Christians. I love what God is forming in our church. I love the personality of this place. It reminds me of the personality of our Jesus.

I’m thankful you are part of us. And I’m thankful I get to be a part of us.

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2 thoughts on “The problem with calling sin “sin” (and some alternatives).”

  1. These are great thoughts Jonathan. I’m all in with what you’re saying. It’ s not the way you went with this, but when I read the the title I began to think about my use of the word “sin.” I think I do “call out sin” in others at times, but I generally don’t use the word sin. I find that especially with Millennials and younger people there is often a false or limited understanding of the word. They tend to define sin in terms of a few specific habits and miss the bigger picture. I’ve be trying to talk in terms of “not loving in the way God designed you to love.” I’m finding people are able to receive that and explore it with me with more openness than if I’d used the word sin.

    What do you think?

    • Brad, I think that’s a great point! When we talk about human fallenness sin is just one useful word to describe it. Brokenness, messiness, slavery, idolatry and more would all be legitimate. As well as a lack of love, a lack of wholeness, a lack of peace – all of those can be great ways to talk about how the Gospel invites us to a new way of life.

      And i’m seeing the same thing – that people outside of church circles may struggle to understand a word like “sin” but may instantly resonate with another word like “brokenness.” I love the heart to flex and meet people where they are!!


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