We have been studying Romans in our middle schoolers this semester. Obviously, there is a real challenge in communicating the deep theological truths of the epistle while still making it accessible to a middle schooler.

What I’ve been wrestling with is how to help our students understand sin. Sin often gets talked about in terms of moral deficiencies. “I lie, cheat, and lust. Therefore I miss the mark of God’s holiness.” To diagnose the sin in our students’ lives we give them the 10 commandments test. If they have messed up in one of the commandments, they are guilty of sin and need God’s forgiveness.

Middle schoolers are starting down the path of abstract thought. They are starting to understand the nuances of motivations and situational ethics. They can find ways to justify the action as long as the motive is ok (“I steal food because I am hungry”) or the consequence isn’t significant (“My lie doesn’t hurt anybody”). As they grow in these skills a behavior-based view of sin will no longer be able to encompass what they see in themselves and the world.

What middle schoolers need is a view of sin that is holistic (global, social, personal) in nature. When I read about sin in the Bible I see that it affects all of creation (“Creation is groaning”), it is social (broken relationships with God and others, injustice), and personal (I do things I don’t want to do or know are wrong). We need to broaden the definition of sin for our teenagers so that they can see the full effect it’s had on the world.

Sin as unbelief
Sin has an origin. It has a beginning in a garden where God and humans dwelled together. What caused the cosmic rift of sin? It was an act of unbelief where the first humans didn’t believe that God’s words were true and good.They didn’t believe in God’s god-ness and sin entered into the world. Defining sin as fundamental unbelief opens all sorts of discussion opportunities for ministry with students.

When a girl comes to you crushed that the boy she likes doesn’t like her back, she is in a state of unbelief. She is hurting because the affection, security and intimacy of a relationship with a boy is what she thinks needs. What she needs most is to know and understand that Jesus is what her heart craves and needs. She needs to believe that the intimacy and security we have with Jesus is enough for her.

Seeing sin in this way means we don’t have to wait for our students to mess up before they can experience their need for Jesus. Everyday there are many opportunities to trust in our Lord (or not trust Him).

Effects of Sin
When we talk about sin in holistic ways we get to show the widespread effect it has on the world. Many of our broken relationships come from the belief that human relationships should meet all of our relational needs. Widespread injustice is a result of communal unbelief that other humans bear the image of God. The failure to care for creation can come from unbelief that God will take care of our basic needs.

As our view of sin becomes clearer, we will find that our thirst for a solution becomes more urgent. Jesus doesn’t become the solution to my sin-problem. He is the solution to  a sin-soaked world. He is the beautiful, wonderful hope that we’ve been waiting for. His act of cosmic love reaches not only to me, but to the whole world. This means we cannot stop at thanking God for saving me. We praise him for saving us.

What does repentance look like?
The Bible says that the proper response to the discovery of sin is to repent or turn away from it. If sin is rooted in unbelief, then we must turn to God in trust. Trust is the anti-venom of unbelief.

When We Repent We Trust…

  •     We trust that in Jesus we are completely forgiven in clean from the stain of sin, so we have no guilt or shame.
  •     We trust that we are completely welcomed into the Trinitarian community of love, so we always have the community we need.
  •     We trust that God is redeeming His image in us, so we can be ourselves freely.
  •     We trust that God’s plan for whole-creation redemption is the best plan, so we let go of our need to run our own lives.

What about you? How are you communicating sin to your teenagers?