The importance of explaining original sin in evangelism

Last time we thought about the dangers of overlooking Trinity in our evangelism.  Here we’ll examine three consequences of neglecting original sin in our gospel presentations…

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You will place your hearers at the centre

So much of evangelism assumes that the non-Christian is like Hercules at the cross-roads (painting above).  There is Virtue pointing us away (from herself!) in one direction and Vice tempting us in the other – and everything is to play for.  Hercules needs to choose virtue and eternity hangs in the balance.

The gospel is very different. According to the Bible, humanity is lost.  And it has been lost, dead, perishing, cursed and guilty since Adam.  We are born into a broken humanity that has no life in it and no ability to save itself.

Perhaps we don’t like preaching this because we assume that, once we’ve acknowledged man’s helplessness, the preacher will have nothing left to say.  Garbage!  It gives our hearers nothing to do, but it gives preachers everything to say!  Because now we can spotlight the true Hero – Jesus.

The unbeliever is not at the centre while we entice their (supposedly free) wills, minds and hearts.  Jesus is at the centre, stepping into a lost situation and turning it around – all by Himself.  Gospel events can take their place at the centre – and not simply as motivational fuel for the business end of proceedings: Decision-Time!

I wonder whether one of the reasons we dislike preaching original sin is because we typically frame our evangelism around the Philippian Jailer’s question in Acts 16.  He asked “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”  But if we begin our evangelism by trying to answer this question, all the emphasis falls on the hearer.  Suddenly evangelism is about what the hearer must do, not “what Jesus has done”.  We’ll only mention His work to the degree that such teaching informs their response.  All emphasis falls on the response.

We don’t like original sin because it takes man off the stage and forces us to sit in the audience.  But the good news is that someone far more captivating can now take centre-stage.

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You will radically diminish the nature of sin and judgement

According to Jesus and Paul, judgement is not a future possibility for mankind.  It’s a present reality (John 3:18,36; Romans 1:18ff).  In fact, condemnation is in the past tense.  It’s already happened.

Just as eternal life is not merely a future blessing but is a present state (cf. all of John!), so also wrath is not merely a future reality, but a current condition.  Judgement day is a confirmation of what’s already true in life.  Throughout life we have wanted the darkness instead of the light and final judgement involves God saying “Have it your way – Go.”

The world is perishing now.  Hell is on the non-Christian now.  And, to a degree, they know it.  To a degree, we all know it – children of Adam that we are.  We’ve all felt hell. We all know something of the darkness.  We know about disconnection.  We know about weeping and wailing and the angry gnashing of teeth.  We’ve all felt hell, here and now.  Hell in miniature.  Hell in our hearts.  Hell in our circumstances.

That continuity is important when we preach judgement.  You see, if our problem is merely “committed sin”, then hell readily appears as a rash over-reaction on God’s part.  A non-Christian might feel that their broken relationships, abortion, gossip, etc, deserves some kind of judgement.  But an eternal wrath for temporal sins?  If behaviour X has warranted punishment Y, then why is hell forever?  Asking questions like that (over and over) was the stock in trade of “Love Wins” – but it’s founded on the assumption that behaviour (not being) is central.

Yet, if wrath is a state of disconnection from God, then getting confirmed in that state – while being a fearful thought – is not absurd.  It’s our being now that matters.  And it’s our being in eternity that matters.  Behaviour flows from being – it doesn’t lead to being.

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You will (inadvertently) preach behaviour, not being

Martin Lloyd-Jones once said of Romans 5: Think of yourself in Adam, though you had done nothing, you were condemned.  Think of yourself in Christ, though you had done nothing, you were saved.

You know what that means?  It means it’s not about your behaviour, it’s about your being.

Have you ever come across evangelistic presentations that try to convict you of sin by focusing on your behaviour.  A particularly blunt attempt goes something like this:

“Have you ever stolen paperclips from work?  Yes? Then you’ve broken the law at one point.  And if you’ve broken the law at one point you’ve broken the law at every point.  Should law-breakers go to heaven or hell?

Hell!  But…  Jesus paid on the cross and made a way so that you can escape the flames for stealing paperclips…”

Do you hear how petty the evangelist has made God out to be?  How irrational His judgement?  How miniscule is Christ’s cross?  (And how Christ merely clears the way for you to make the epic journey to heaven?)

Now perhaps your way of convicting people goes a little deeper.  You manage to uncover some more serious sins than tiny thefts, white lies and lustful fantasies.  But nonetheless, if your approach aims at sins committed you will pervert the gospel.

Our condemnation goes much deeper than behaviour.  It’s about our being. We don’t have life in ourselves.  It’s not about convicting people of this crime or that.  It’s saying “You have no life in yourself (your bad behaviour is the fruit of that disconnection), but now get connected to the only life-source.”

I will often confess to bad behaviours in my preaching but only so as to say “You know what’s scary? That sin comes from somewhere deep in me.  Somewhere bigger than me.  There’s a power that’s over me and in me and it comes out in this way and that.  But I can’t just choose to do better.  It’s not merely what I do, there’s something desperately wrong with who I am.”

And as the Spirit works on people they realise they have no life in themselves.  They realize that they don’t know God.  They’re cut off, estranged, alienated, disconnected.  It’s not so much that their sins separate them, it’s that their separation leads to sin.

If our sinful acts were the problem then surely righteous acts would be the solution.  But no, our problem was not caused by us, and neither will our solution be.  We didn’t have the power to make ourselves sinners, and we don’t have the power to make ourselves saved.  Our problem was out of our hands and so is our solution.  Adam has made us perish, only Christ can rescue.

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In all this we see that the way we pose the problem powerfully shapes the solution we offer.  If we shy away from original sin and focus instead on committed sin – we shift the focus from Christ to us, from being to behaviour and we misconstrue our plight before God.

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Much more could be said (perhaps you can add your own thoughts in comments).  But I think these reasons alone mean we should put original sin back into our gospel explanations…

If only we had such a gospel explanation… perhaps one that was easy to memorise and share with friends…

i f   o n l y  .   .   .     i   f      o    n    l     y    .        .          .

#StayTuned

Posted on by glenscriv in 321, evangelism, gospel

20 Responses to The importance of explaining original sin in evangelism

  1. Ken

    Wow! Praise the Lord. This is so very clear to me now, I knew something
    was wrong with the idea “just take them to the !0 commandments” but you
    nailed it..Yes and Amen! Thank you, Ken

  2. kirstindykes

    I whole-heartedly agree with you on this, Glen. I guess one of the reasons we shy away from talking about original sin in evangelism, though, is that it seems unnatural and counter-cultural to the average Western non-Christian. It involves both belief in an original human who sinned (potentially counter to evolution) and belief that somehow someone else’s sin could taint *me* (very counter to our culture’s rabid individualism). Any ideas for ways to talk about original sin that would help people to understand? (I’ve got as far as ‘maybe it’s not always useful to start by referring to it as “original sin”‘! )

  3. Howard

    The Acts 16 account is fascinating, because we see the faith in direct conflict with the culture of the day (people’s use of a possessed girl who declares the truth about Paul and Silas). It is because of a literal ‘over-turning’ (earthquake) in the location that the jailer cries for aid, so clearly, crisis can be used as a means or opportunity for evangelism, but we all face days when our non-christian friends ask us about our faith – it’s then we need to start where Paul does in Romans 1 – the relationship that is broken by sin. Most of us know what’s being said here (a deep truth we’ve spent our lives running from), and it almost always releases the ‘hounds of heaven’ which begin to pursue us. The other thing I always encourage at this point is a fresh look at the Jesus of the Gospels – who is this person? That, if we begin to genuinely reflect on the material there, leads us to confront the God who is truly here.

  4. John B

    Amen to, it’s *being* that matters! Yes, the example of the stolen paperclips makes God out to be a monstrous judge. Likewise, it demeans His judgment to say that he condemns all of humanity for the behavior of Adam. Humanity’s being became corrupt through Adam. Original Sin is humanity’s corruption problem; not our guilt problem. I, too, don’t think that this is the best name for our condition. But, after so many years, it has it’s place in the church. “Fall from grace” seems like a more apt description.

    “The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father.” (Ezekiel 18:20) “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” (Psalms 19:9)

  5. Glen

    Thanks all.

    Welcome to blog comments Ken.

    Hi Kirstin,

    A few thoughts spring to mind. I’m sure I’ll be unpacking them more and more in the next little while…

    * You’re right that I don’t use the term “original sin” when I speak. (Mainly because people think it means “God hates babies. From day one.”)

    * Everyone already has the “problem” of explaining vicarious action, if they want to explain the cross. I’d argue that it’s even more absurd to explain a vicarious solution to a self-caused problem.

    * Everyone already has the “problem” of convicting the hearer of sin. But if “sin” is basically bad behaviour, you’ll draw a blank with many.

    * It should be noted that evangelistic presentations like Christianity Explored are very good at explaining sin as the symptom – a corrupt heart as the source. That’s exactly what I’m saying.

    * We all know that our families shape us. My ancestor, Ann Forbes, committed a crime, was exiled from the mother country and thousands have been radically affected. One person, one crime, and whole generations are determined. All our family trees are like this. It’s a modern delusion to think that we’re self made people. It’s worth unmasking that delusion because it goes right to the heart of the gospel.

    * I think it has real traction with the unbeliever to say “There’s a brokenness to me that goes far deeper than behaviour. I’m a mess. Give me the best circumstances, the greatest achievements, my dearest loved ones, and still a selfishness and pride and envy comes out of me that can be shocking.” Again I think CE (especially when it’s in Mark 7 territory does this very well. It’s not about naming “original sin” but talking about our deep, overpowering drives more than our concrete actions).

    * Ironically, conservative types tend to look down on gospel presentations where sin is bondage and Christ is the bondage-breaker. But those kinds of categories are far more Augustinian – and our own treatment of sinners as will-driven free-agents is the Pelagian stance.

    If I think of more stuff I’ll blog about it. Do let me know your thoughts.

  6. Glen

    Some more thoughts…

    * Steve Levy’s “Hell” sermon is a tremendous example of how “condemned already” connects with unbelievers in a profound way:

    http://www.mountpleasantchurch.org.uk/getfile.php?type=sermons&id=72.mp3

    * Addiction is a great category for sin opened out by speaking in ‘original sin’ / ‘bound will’ terms.

    * Mockingbird are a fantastic ministry that is extremely culturally relevant *because* they constantly hammer home the bound will.

    see http://www.mbird.com/resources/

    eg http://www.mbird.com/resources/?sermon_id=203

    or this series:

    http://the48files.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/good-news-for-people-with-big-problems.html

  7. Glen

    Also…

    * Let’s convict people of what sin essentially *is*. It’s disconnection from the living God. It’s not knowing the Lord when even an ox knows its own master!

    We can say: That estrangement you feel from God… that IS your problem. And isn’t it absurd to live in His world and not know Him??

    Knowing God is not a fringe benefit of salvation – once we’ve gotten the sin problem dealt with. Knowing God IS salvation, and ignorance of Him IS our sin.

  8. Glen

    Aaaaand….

    * I forgot I wrote this a while back on original sin:

    http://christthetruth.net/2010/01/21/born-neutral-or-born-in-sin/

    David makes the great comment on that post that pop-Atheism today is far more deterministic – all our behaviour is the outworking of our selfish genes – and we dance to their beat.

  9. Glen

    (You didn’t think I was done, did you).

    There’s also stuff in the culture about questioning “choice = freedom” like:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VO6XEQIsCoM

  10. Glen

    (this is all for my benefit by the way – so I have the references in one place)…

    There’s also this…

    http://christthetruth.net/2010/10/04/the-good-news-of-being-condemned-already/

  11. kirstindykes

    Haha, knew it couldn’t be purely altruistic in motivation ;) I failed to sign into getting comment notifications, so haven’t been noticing all this stuff coming along. I look forward to perusing it :)

    I think it really helps to put the idea of a “brokenness I can’t overcome”, and “not being ultimately free in what we do” into the context of modern/postmodern thought, like that. You’re right, when you put it that way, I can see that rather than being some seen as some weird Medieval irrelevance, in some ways it’s one of the bits of the Bible that most *chimes* with our culture.

    I think also that ‘hell now’ is a really important reality. It stops me reducing Jesus to an eternal insurance policy/a ticket into a 5-star eternity and is the deeper uniting reality behind the two approaches to sharing the gospel that often get played off against each other: 1. “Believe in Jesus and get-out-of-hell-free” and 2. “Believe in Jesus and find joy and fulfilment in your current life”. Neither tells the full story and hence each sells the gospel short.

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