How to Talk about Sin without Religious Language

We have been talking about believing in God, and although it is not explicitly stated in John 3:16 (our primary text), we do need to be able to define and explain sin.

The challenge, of course, in this culture is to find a way to do so, firmly and biblically, and yet without our listeners blocking out the discussion because of their religious stereotypes. Now, we have the assurance that it is not our responsibility to convict the world of sin, and that “No one can come to me [Jesus] unless the Father who sent me draws them” (Jn 6:44, NIV). But we still have a responsibility to be as clear and convincing as possible.

So how do you explain sin without using religious language? How’s this?

God had given Adam and Eve one rule, just one rule. By keeping this rule, they were able to show God in a concrete way that they loved him and lived in submission to him; he is God and they are not. The Garden had many different trees with many different types of delicious fruit, all to be eaten and enjoyed. God had created them all, and had created them good. But there was one tree — and we don’t know what type it was; I’m sure it wasn’t an apple tree but that’s just me — and they were told not to eat the fruit on that tree. It was called “the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.”

This is true of all relationships, isn’t it? All relationships have rules. Spouses are to be faithful to each other. Friends are to treat one another with grace. Co-workers are to be honest. This is just the way relationships are. We don’t know why God picked this one rule; but then again, he is God and we are not.

So did Adam and Eve obey this one, simple rule? Unfortunately not. The one thing they couldn’t have, they craved, and they ate the fruit. This violation of God’s rule is called “sin.“

What happened? What happens whenever the rules of a relationship are broken? There are consequences. In human relationships, it may be a broken trust, or a lack of privileges, or a removal of intimacy.

Consequences should be in proportion to the nature of the relationship and the severity of the violation. For Adam and Eve, the consequence was severe. After all, they had violated the rule of a relationship with God, the one who made them; and on top of that, they had violate the rule made by a holy God, one who is wholly without sin, without imperfection. That consequence was separation. They were kicked out of the Garden and an angel was put at the entrance so they couldn’t sneak back in.

But more importantly, they were separated in heart. Their relationship with God had been severed. In fact, they now feared God, the same God who previously had walked with them in the Garden. The first time God came to walk in the Garden after their sin, they hid. If the image weren’t so sad, it would be comical. Two people trying to hide from God, but that’s what sin does.

Lest we are too hard on our first parents, we understand that every one of us has made the same decision. We may not have eaten the wrong fruit, but we have done what God asked us not to do. We have acted with anger and without mercy. We have pridefully put ourselves first and others last. Our hearts have become darkened and we have not enjoyed the majesty of God as we should. We have put ourselves first and God second, or last. We all have sinned, which is precisely the point Paul makes when we writes to the church that lived in Rome. He says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).

We have all eaten the forbidden fruit in one way or another and therefore fall short of the glory that God intended we have when he made us. And when we sin, we too suffer the consequence of separation from God.

Where does that leave us? If we lived separated from all that is good and pure and lovely and majestic, and if we continue like this through life, then we will die separated from God. Paul makes this point later in the same letter to the Roman church. “The wages of sin is death” (6:23). And to die separated from God means that we exist forever separated from him and all that is good and lovely.

This obviously is not a discussion for a two minute wait at the bus stop. There I would simply say that people were created to live in a personal relationship with their Creator, but when we break the rules of that relationship, we are separated from him. The good news of the gospel is that God worked through Christ to do something about that separation, and through Christ calls us back into relationship. If we refuse his free offer, we will live out our lives in isolation from our Creator; and if we die separated, that separation is made permanent.

What do you think?

6 thoughts on “How to Talk about Sin without Religious Language

  1. It seems to me that the story of Adam and Eve is very much “religious language”. I would go with Paul in Romans 7, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.” This is a notion of sin that ought to be very accessible to anyone out of their own experience of themselves and especially of society, of our nation: we want to care for everybody properly, be at peace with each other and the world … but we can’t organize ourselves to get it done. For obvious historical/structural reasons, “the way things are”, the omnipresent evil we call “sin”.

    You can show people that although they know themselves to be bad, God understands that they are not bad because they want to be but because they have found themselves in an impossible situation, from which they can be freed (only) by grace and repentance.

    One can get that done in less than two minutes, I expect. Addressing a person whose heart has been opened.

    Contemporary individualism is just strongly repulsed by a notion of “fallen” human nature, of inherited sin. It believes in progress through personal effort leading to better law, which it perceives as the historical reality. Until someone becomes thoroughly frustrated (broken-hearted) with the self-defeating nature of this approach, how despite ourselves we “do not the good we want, but the evil we do not want”, it seems hopeless to try to get them to worry about “a talking snake.” Although of course Genesis 3 is a beautiful, very dense story once one is ready for it.

  2. Here’s a comment that came in via email:

    Liked your attempt at describing sin in a way that can make contact with people today. However, not so sure about relying on Adam and Eve. Though certainly this is the first sin, it surely isn’t the only sin we could make reference to in the Scriptures. I speculate that starting at that point might raise a series of questions that would make getting the idea across difficult. If God created them isn’t he responsible? Aren’t Adam and Eve metaphorical, and if so, how can their ‘actions’ explain something about my life now? Etc

    1. The comment above is actually form Lew Dawson, a pastor in Temecula, California.

      Interesting that several of you have questioned my choice of Adam and Eve’s sin. I did it for two reasons:

      1. Theologically, this is the basis of depravity.

      2. It was to show that everyone has rejected the rules of the relationship, a point I am going to bring out next. But I also don’t want to create unnecessary problems. What do others think?

  3. I think Adam and Eve are a good starting place, not only because they were the first sinners, but because they sinned even though they walked with God every day. I think it may help with a person’s guilt of “I’m such a horrible sinner, God can’t save me.” God understands that people… all people… sin, which is why He sent Jesus.

    I also like that this points out the seperation from God. Adam and Eve are the best example of this, having been seperated both physically and spiritually from God because of their sin.

    Anyone who thinks that a discussion of Adam and Eve sound “religious” is probably going to think anything from the Bible sounds that way. We have to work with what we have, and what we have is God’s word… the rest is up to the Spirit.

  4. I love this series, Bill!

    I have been absent from reading blogs for a couple weeks and am glad to come back and find this. I only wish I was earlier to have engaged in the previous discussions.

    When I share with college students, I agree that defining “believe” and “sin” are so important. I usually talk about “the first people” and their disobedience to God because they did not trust what He said. Then I talk about each of our “sin,” though I normally don’t use the term sin until later in the conversation. It often has misconceptions attached to it. I use words like rebel against God, hurt each other, dishonor God who deserves our honor, and hold apathy for things we should not be apathetic about. Especially in Portland, I feel like those resonate with the sins of the students I’m talking to.

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