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Is It Wrong to Call Sin, “Sin”?

An odd sentiment has arisen among many professing Christians that alleges it is misguided, unwise, even judgmental, to tell a non-Christian they are sinning or to refer to a certain lifestyle as sinful. Rather we should offer Mourners-Benchhope and grace, and not try to shame others into the kingdom. 

For sure, there is wisdom in such an approach. The Bible is clear that nitpicking others’ faults and faux pas, much less issuing citations for conduct unapproved turns us into the worst kind of creature. Nevertheless, there is equal error in tip-toeing around what is at the heart of Gospel — that we are all, every single one of us, sinners.

So why the hesitancy to tell it like it is?

Jesus did not come to save people from social injustice, bad religion, or errors in judgment. As the angel said to Joseph, “[Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins  (Matt. 1:20-22). Social injustice, bad religion, and errors in judgment are undoubtedly some of the things the Savior has come to save us from. But their root is the same — sin.

Perhaps there should be hesitancy to call a specific sin, “sin.” I mean, sure, the Bible says fornication is a sin. But my unbelieving, unmarried, fornicating neighbors need more than just to be told to stop slamming the jam. They need something more extensive than a checklist of sins to stifle. They need to recognize their condition. They are sinners.

Is it my job to tell them that? Well, yeah. Of course, this doesn’t mean I should steer every conversation toward the subject or spew condemnatory Bible verses every time I get a chance. But how else can we proclaim the wonderful, hopeful, gracious news that Christ came to save us from our sins if we avoid the subject of… sin? That’s like trying to rescue a drowning man who disbelieves in water. Part of his deliverance will, indeed, be the recognition that H2O is real and too much of it in ones lungs can be terminal.

I could be mistaken about this, but Christians who hedge at gently, lovingly, but forthrightly calling sin, “sin,” do so for two equally errant reasons:

  1. They conflate labeling sin as being judgmental.
  2. They actually don’t believe certain acts are sins.

By way of experiment,  just ask one of your Christian friends who supports gay marriage this simple question: Is homosexuality a sin? And watch them tap dance. Nowadays, trying to get a straight answer to that question is impossible³.  Of course, there is nuance, particulars, prejudices, and other complicated stuff that comes into play when making such assessments. But the same folks who obfuscate in affirming the sinfulness and abnormality of same-sex unions will have little problem calling you on the carpet for your vile judgmentalism.

In this way, it’s become a sin to call sin, “sin.” We’ve chucked the revivalist’s mourner’s bench in favor of the therapist’s couch. We’ve swapped contrition with the celebration of boundless individuality. We’ve rewritten the Seven Deadly Sins to accommodate our own vices. Nowadays, there is no need for repentance. For without sin, what am I repenting from? In this culture, the only real sin is the barbaric concept of sin itself.

Meanwhile, our friends and loved ones are drowning in something they don’t believe in.

As Philip Yancey suggested, there are only two types of people in the world, sinners who admit it and sinners who don’t. Which places the recognition of sin, the conviction of sin, the remorse for sin, and the embrace of God’s cure for sin, as the eternal dividing line.

Jesus was called the friend of sinners (Matt. 11:18-20). Apparently, the Gospel writers had no qualms about calling a spade a spade. Like Christ, we are to befriend sinners. Course, we needn’t call them such. But they are. And dancing around their real condition — or ours for that matter — doesn’t help anyone.

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{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Jason Joyner December 24, 2013, 8:22 AM

    This is why we need to be plugged into the Source, connected to the Vine, for life to flow through us. When we need to confront sin, we have His grace to speak. When we need to show His love, His compassion moves us.

    There is wisdom and discernment to speak at the appropriate time. We shouldn’t fear the consequences of what we speak, even if it is clear the world won’t like what we say (see: Phil Robertson). But did we consider whether this is the right time and place (see: Phil Robertson) to share?

    Jesus was unusually harsh to the Samaritan woman who touched His cloak and was healed of her flow of blood. But the Lord knew that if He pushed her a little, the world would benefit by her extraordinary faith. Jesus knew when to speak with grace or conviction, and He said over and over it was because of His connection to the Father.

    Perhaps some Christians hesitate to call sin “sin” because of the caricature of the evangelical always shouting down at the poor sinner. A thoughtful sentiment, but again, we need that discernment and sensitivity to the Spirit.

    The statement I like is this, “We’re all beggars in need of grace. Just some of us have found where the Bread is and are trying to tell others about it.”

  • Jay DiNitto December 24, 2013, 8:47 AM

    Poo-pooing sin talk is mostly Enlightenment/hyper-tolerance nonsense — doubleplusungood thoughts to bear.

    It’s actually somewhat of a throwback to the Medieval concept of sin, which was thought to cause actual physical harm.

    Interesting related post:
    “Did Jesus really teach that it is wrong to judge others?”

  • Lyn Perry December 25, 2013, 5:54 AM

    A good conversation starter (for nonbelievers who are open to the topic) is the difference between Sin and sins. Reminds me as well to approach the issue from a compassionate, theological perspective and not a judgmental, vindictive one.

  • Steve D December 25, 2013, 6:09 PM

    Why is it we always talk about sin and rarely about salvation? How can we explain to non-Christians about repentance when we don’t talk about Jesus’ death and resurrection? Could it be that we put the cart before the horse?

    • Teddi Deppner December 26, 2013, 7:57 PM

      Good point, Steve!

      And why don’t we talk about our God? About what He’s like? Why isn’t His activity in our lives more obvious and visible? Why don’t we have stories all the time about what He’s been doing?

      Our “testimony” isn’t just about how we discovered this God, how we met Him, how we “got saved”. Our testimony is a living, active, personal relationship with Him!

    • D.M. Dutcher December 28, 2013, 5:51 PM

      C.S. Lewis mentioned this in “God in the Dock.” Essentially, people don’t think they need to be saved, and approach God as if He is the defendant in a trial. So in part explaining about sin is needed first, to understand why we are separated from Him and why we need to be saved. Lewis mentioned that the pagans of old realized that they were sinners, or that sin existed, and with them it was liberating to finally have an answer to fate, or bondage to the will of the gods.

      I think the current over-focus on sin in the public square is a reaction due to shock at the speed of traditional mores disintegrating. It’s almost like a shadow war and we wake up to find ourselves conquered.

  • Teddi Deppner December 26, 2013, 7:53 PM

    This is a good question, maybe even a critical one. Jesus and His early church leaders seemed to address people with the message of the gospel in a variety of different ways. I’m currently going through the New Testament, examining the references to “the gospel” and trying to grasp what was meant by that term, what was implied, what context was given for this “good news” they were sharing.

    Although there’s no doubt that the classic evangelical approach (“you’re a sinner, you need a savior, the savior is Jesus and salvation is a free gift when you accept Him”) is biblical, I sense that it is time for some new wine. A fresh approach for a world that doesn’t embrace the fundamental idea of absolutes and morals based solely in the text of an ancient book.

    Not sure what that will look like, but I do believe that there are precedents in scripture for dealing with societies and mindsets that reject or are ignorant of our God.

    • Steve D December 27, 2013, 6:25 PM

      What my basic complaint is that we tend to define sin. However, as we’re defining sin, we don’t mention Christ. How do we get the message of Christ across when we only talk about sin? How can we talk about repentance without first talking about Christ?

      • Mike Duran December 29, 2013, 7:23 AM

        Steve, I think you’re creating a false dilemma by suggesting that “as we’re defining sin, we don’t mention Christ.” I don’t find this to be the case. At all. Of course, there are those who harp on sin and overemphasize it. But assuming we can’t or don’t do both is, I think, mistaken. That said, I get where you’re coming from and agree that it’s the goodness of God that leads us to repentance, not hammering on the topic of sin.

        • Steve D January 1, 2014, 1:28 PM

          Everytime that there’s a national tragedy or natural disaster, there are plenty of Christians who go to the airwaves and blame the problem on sin. Usually either abortion or homosexuality/same sex marriage. They call on people to repent, but rarely, if ever mention Jesus or even the plan of salvation. It’s a shame because the discussion doesn’t even get close to salvation, it gets stuck on sin. By drawing attention to sin without mentioning Jesus,we are telling people who are thirsty in the desert that they need water without telling them where the water is.

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