Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Friday, November 3, 2017

How to Talk about Sin Without Using 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?


It's good but I have a poor memory so would have to make it simpler. Thanks anyway

I like this approach. It should be a good springboard to discussion instead of a door closer. I often wonder how to effectively explain the gospel in an "elevator version" - i.e. - 1-2 minutes. I don't think you can, but one should be able to use that one minute to open the door for futher conversation. Of course, the first thing we must do is pray each day that we seek opportunities to plant seeds, and then pray for them to be watered and ultimately to have God, through the Holy Spirit, to cause it to grow. Thanks for these thoughtful insights.

Bill This is the beginning of a great conversation (not necessarily on this board - but in general among those who claim to follow Christ - and, perhaps, those who do not). The key point is that you cast the issue as relational - specifically as a violation of relationship boundaries. There is an action - that violates relationship boundaries. Most people can understand this - assuming they have actually learned about such boundaries - which is really a sort of recent - and absolutely critical - relationship concept. The issue - how would you respond to someone egregiously violating your relationship boundary? Would you entirely distance yourself from that person? Now then - what would it take to restore the relationship? Anyone can take off from the above - HOWEVER, there is a key Biblical concept here that I expect is much more accessible to most human beings that the term "sin" (which, essentially, is meaningless), that is, "being in relationship/fellowship/connection". There is a grand Biblical word for this - "reconciliation". The question then is - NOT "are you right with God" - but, are you in "relationship" with God. And that is EXACTLY what A&E (historical or allegorical - it does not matter) were with Yah prior to that time - wherein He walked in the cool of the garden to enter into "relationship" with His creation. There is more here - Thus "sin" - not only being a meaningless term is really ancillary to the real issue - which is "relationship". Now THAT concept is one which our modern colleagues can well grasp!!!

Bill - It is rather interesting analyzing your piece - in the context of the main topic - and then the various side topics - not even necessarily relevant - but somehow related - that are introduced. Whether these are really necessary - or helpful - or distracting - is an interesting issue. I am taking off on your article - in conjunction with my own discussion on this subject - which mirrors a long held - albeit not nearly so substantially articulated - conception - for a Men's Group I am involved with. Best Greg Logan

As a side note - I have seriously considered where the concept of "sin" was actually derived. Yah did not use that word with A&E. Per the text He actually used with it first with Cain ("sin" lies crouching at the door - quite the intense description - a very "personal" metaphor). In non-Biblical history - where do we see such a conception? Why do we even have such a conception (esp. if Genesis is read strictly as a human document). Likewise, the same question can be asked for the "offerings" - not first seen with A&E BUT somehow their sons had begun to make "offerings" to God. What was this all about? We see no command of God to do so.... Yet Yah did react.... What is the story behind the story? And, again, where in non-Biblical history do these conceptions emerge - and why? Greg Logan

Excellent. Everyone can identify with “breaking rules and consequences”, even if hey don’t want to acknowledge the concept of sin. Well Done!!

Paul said that he would not have known sin if it were not for the law (Rom. 7:7) and that the law shows us our sinful state (Rom. 3:19-20). As long as we are doing it with gentleness and reverence (1Pet 3:14-15) I'm always amazed at how receptive people are to the law as a mirror to show them their sin. The good news (1Cor. 15) certainly does not make any sense without the bad news (Rom. 6:23) and though they know it in their heart they suppress it in unrighteousness(Rom. 1). I think it was VanTil that spoke of it as a "reminding process".

It seems more correct to speak of "sin" as a matter of committing a crime, not just an offense to a relationship. If I'm in a relationship within which we've simply agreed upon some rules, then I break one of those rules, this offense might be reasonably just overlooked, or at least forgiven matter-of-factly, apart from any sort of redress or payment for the offense. (Like Luther's thesis 82/95: "Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?" Love could simply forgive an offense, and bear the wrong, apart from any retribution or penalty for that offense). But God can not merely "overlook" offenses out of love, since then He would become unjust, allowing cosmic crimes to be committed with impunity as it were. Moreover, no criminal accountability can ever be mitigated by the performance of good, loving actions as if to "counterbalance" the evil action. All those loving and good works simply meet God's requirement, there is no extra credit possible. We have indeed broken relationship and lost intimacy with God. But more than that, we have rightfully incurred His wrath and vengeance that our cosmic criminal offense(s) (i.e., "sin") rightfully deserve. That wrath was all placed upon Christ, on behalf of those that would trust in His provision of right standing, and receive the restored relationship which is only available in His name. Otherwise, apart from trusting in Christ, we still face... not God's absence, but His presence in judgment and wrath.

The point is to connect with people who may find Bill's suggested approach more accessible (understandable and meaningful) - as opposed to, perhaps, a more rigorously technical description. Bill's approach personalizes sin - the concept of a crime does not fully personalize in the same way.

Amen perfect breakdown of sin.

Dr. Mounce, Thank you for putting together this series! You have a way with words and a knack for breaking complex subjects down into simple concepts. There are several points in this post that could help me explain the Gospel to non-believers and church people alike. I am learning through these posts and for that I am thankful. God bless, Glenn

It is upsetting to me that the program makes commenting so difficult by . Why can't I use use my real name? It is a good presentation, and I think starts in the right place--with creation. How can we know that we are sinners if we haven't a clue about our origin and God's requirements of us? However, I do not think the "all" in Romans 3:23 is a universal "all". It is the same "all" as the "all them that believe" in verse 22, and are "justified freely by His grace" in verse 24. I render the passage like this: "Even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ unto all them that believe (for there is no distinction: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God) [And are] justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus". I do not see any alternative location for the parenthetical statement in the paragraph. What do you think? Mike Bonham

I think it's a load of nonsense.


To explain Sin without religious stereotype's or in dialog... First one needs to explain what SIN means or documents. Isn't sin nothing more that the debased minded concepts of ones mind. A sinner is one who indulges in the practice of Adultery, Fornication, Idolatry , Sorcery, Hatred, Murders, any and all things evil, considered by society... Even selfish ambitions are considered sin. Sin is all things.. Negative

After Adam's and Eve's disobedience, their own attempts to cover their shame, by using leaves, were totally unsuccessful. God then stepped in and showed them the need for a blood sacrifice, by His sacrificing an animal for their covering. By this means we may assume that God revealed to them that He had forgiven their disobedience? If this is the case, why has the whole human race inherited Adam's and Eve's original sin?

I hope this message will be adopted by every Christian in witnessing about Jesus. I have been touched. God bless the writer and give him more knowledge and wisdom.

Bill, I related well to your logical train of thought and use of the idea of broken relationships in your description of sin. I think that accurate approach is relevant in today’s culture and can be effective in helping us communicating the Gospel. Thank you for your careful articulation of the idea to help us better share the gospel with our contemporaries.

Your post is so meaningful for folks trying to explain sin and other topics to not only unchurched people but to others in the church for a deeper understanding of the stories in the Bible that they are trying to figure out how this is relevent today. Thank you for your insight. This was excellent.

I think you made a clear point.

Very helpful.

Bill, this is an excellent explanation of what sin is but it begs the question of who this God is, in the first place. Establishing that God even exists in today's culture is the Mt. Everest that must be climbed before you can even begin to talk about sin. Just a few days before the end of last year I was challenged to "prove God exists, scientifically!" My immediate response was that I couldn't. I have been working on how to respond to this challenge ever since. The Bible tells us that this is the 'mystery' that God has set in place to confound the knowledge and understanding of the world. Now my response to the challenge of proving God's existence will be, "I can't prove that God exists because God has hidden Himsellf in a shroud of mystery and He reveals Himself to whomever He chooses." That's biblically sound I think but not very satisfactory as far as it goes. It needs to be followed up with something specifically about His living within me. Proving it not scientifically but legally. All that to say that a discussion about sin is meaningless without previously establishing a God who wants to have a relationship with us.

My friend, if you go to Romans 1: 18-21 Paul states that God's invisible attributes, namely His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world. So they are without excuse. The challenge is that many need to know that they are in need of a Savior, because of the wrath that is in man, and will be punished eternally.

I don't think you need to waste your time trying to figure out how to prove God exists scientifically. This whole line of argument presupposes the supremacy of science over God, which I think is dangerous to begin with, and ignores the proper limits of the scientific method to begin with. Science is not a body of knowledge, it is a method of using measureable observations to support or reject a hypothesis. It assumes that everything is quantifiable or that something that is not quantifiable is somehow unworthy of consideration. I would ask them to scientifically prove by quantifiable, measurable means, to prove some conceptual idea to demonstrate the limits on the use of science. Example: "Ok. Scientifically prove infinity exists. You can't. Infinity cannot be observed or measured. If you tried to do so, you would be placing limits around infinity which would violate the concept you are proving. It is a conceptual idea that we accept on faith because we could not perform without it." Science has its boundaries.

We all have a relationship of one sort or another. We belong to a society where we have rules; we might belong to a club that has certain standards; we work for a company that has certain policies; and we might be in a marriage relationship which has certain expectations. Contravene any one of these rules, standards, policies, or expectations, and we are in a spot of bother, and there are likely to be consequences. Whether or not we agree, we all have a relationship with God, and if we do anything that negatively impacts that relationship, either knowingly or not, we have sinned. Like any other negative impact, there are consequences.

I totally agree with the quest. However, you started with Adam and Eve, and any non religious person is going to shut down right away at the mention of them because educated people "know" they never existed. I have no problem with your theology (or with Adam and Eve), but I think you really need to start somewhere else, if you want to reach people in western culture.

Thank you. For a number of years, I have made myself find ways of talking about my faith without using my religious vocabulary. My fear is that far to often people rely on their religious vocabulary to hide the fact (even from themselves) that they do not really understand what they are trying to explain. Try explaining Salvation without using the words "sin," "salvation," "repentance," "sacrifice," or "faith." Only when you are able to do that do you really understand what you are talking about.

We do not need to explain sin. The understanding of sin is inherent. John 3:20, "for everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light lest his deeds (sins) should be exposed." Both the saved and the lost are well acquainted with their sins. As they stand in the presence of a holy God at the crossroads of salvation, they are well aware of their sins. Our job is to preach the path to eternal life through Christ. One final comment to Greg. Greg, sin is not a meaningless term. If it is then Christ died for a meaningless term.

Interesting. I wonder in this day and age how aware people are of their sin when culture does not even acknowledge the existence of the idea of sin.

This one is a tough nut to crack. I am not sure that you could divest the concept of sin from religious language. To me the two seem to be inextricably bound. I have often heard it said that the Greek word for sin essentially means to miss the mark so as not to share in a prize. This seems like a pretty apt description of what sin is. Looking at the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 we see that God created the world in his own order and purpose and declared it to be good. In Genesis 2 he gives us a purpose to be stewards over this creation, and to trust him as the one who determines good and evil. We however, chose otherwise, trying to set ourselves up as the arbiters of good and evil rather than putting our faith in God, and have missed the mark that God has set and therefore disqualified ourselves from the prize of eternal life. If God is the author of creation, the one who gives it purpose, the one who declares what is good and evil, and sin is the missing of the mark that he has set by virtue of being creator, then it is tough to define one without the other. I think we shouldn't try to define sin apart from "religious" language and let the chips fall where they may. To try to do so becomes a dishonest shell game. To do so denies a fundamental piece of the gospel, which is that God is...well...God.