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Talking about Sin without Saying “Sin”
If you really understand a concept you will have a rich vocabulary for it. For example, when you first become aware of trees, a tree is simply a tree. Later a tree is deciduous or non-deciduous, an oak, an elm, a hardwood, a pine. If the entire world of trees is referred to only as “trees” then we don’t really know the category.
Back in graduate school, I remember a conversation that revealed that I didn’t know enough about an important category. I was talking with another student about Scripture. He was clearly engaged—asking questions, making connections. Then I went for it. I said that our biggest problem in life is sin.
“What is sin?” he asked.
Hmm. I wasn’t expecting that question. Sin, I thought, was sin. What else could I say? I told him that I would get back to him on that one. He had exposed my superficial understanding.
In this case, the word sin was simply unclear; the man had no religious background and simply didn’t know a definition. But more often, the word sin sounds pejorative and condemning, as in “tax collectors and ‘sinners’” (Mark 2:15). Even in New Testament times the word sin was loaded down with extra baggage and often was used to mean “you are different from me—worse than me.” That is the way many still hear it today.
Scripture has many ways of identifying sin, and so should we if we want it to be understood. Otherwise, the meaning could easily default to “you are worse.” For example, if you…
…talk about homosexuality and call it sin, without further clarification—the conversation is usually over.
…talk to a recovering addict after an AA meeting and call addiction sin—at best, the person will ignore your comment.
…talk to Christian counselors at a CAPS conference about sin—some might leave the room.
Many of these people are responding to the condemning, self-righteous connotations that can accompany the word, in which case they should stop the conversation and leave the room.
A mature understanding of sin should be accompanied by a diverse vocabulary. In other words, we should be able to speak about sin for fifteen minutes without ever using the word sin. Like this:
We are treasonous…
We manage the world our way…
We want what we want . . .
God created us and we belong to him, but we venture out as rebellious children… (from Luke 15 and the prodigal son)
We live in ways that are not God’s original design, not good for human flourishing…
We live independently in a Father-centered world…
All life is personal. We are saying something about our relationship with the true God in everything we do…
We do not believe what God has said. God has spoken through Jesus, and we ignore him…
Talking about sin without saying the word takes practice but it is a more accurate reflection of how Scripture talks about it. Our goal is to be clear and to avoid offense when the offense is from our own ineptitude or self-righteousness. We want to be neither predicable nor trite but engaging and even a tad surprising. In other words, we want to engage with people the way Jesus did.
 CAPS stands for Christian Association for Psychological Studies.
 Tim Keller interview posted on YouTube.
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