The Following is an excerpt from my upcoming book: Beyond the Edge of the Water: Reclaiming Biblical Discipleship for a Rising Generation. Coming out this summer.
The nature of sin and the biblical solution to its infestation might seem, to older generations, to be entirely obvious and unnecessary to point out as a key part of being a disciple. However, when we consider the world our students are facing—one of rapidly deteriorating morality—its need is greater than ever. As youth leaders, we need to be able to move students from simply loving the idea of Jesus to deeply understanding their need for Him and the value of living the life He calls them to. Unfortunately, we have somehow allowed students to believe that forgiveness is the beginning and end of repentance and that what the Bible calls sin has to be weighed for its cultural relevancy. If our intention for them is nothing more than staying out of trouble, being a good person, and finding their true identity, then what room is left for Jesus?
So what’s the plan? It’s simple. Talk about sin.
Talk about sin. Because we don’t. Over the last ten years, I have lived in Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Fort Wayne, and, of course, attended different churches. In those ten years, I can count on one hand the number times any one of those churches talked about sin. Why? Because it’s easier to talk about how much Jesus loves us and the life He wants for us. It’s more attractive to focus on the good in people, rather than the bad. But here’s the thing: we aren’t good. We are dirty, filthy sinners. A former colleague of mine used to tell his students that they were both divine and disgusting. He was insistent that they understood the nature of their flesh and the spiritual battle they were in every day.
Let’s imagine for a moment what our students might be like if we never talked about the presence of sin. Now, I’m not talking about understanding the difference between right and wrong. God has already placed in us the inherent ability to recognize that there is a difference between the two. I’m talking about the explicit understanding of the Fall, depravity, and life in the flesh. They wouldn’t have the ability to comprehend their moral inability to obey God, their inclination to self-justify, self-worship, and their natural bent toward choosing sin. Meaning for this group it would be impossible to pursue a holy lifestyle and life of discipleship; it would be impossible to please God and follow Him into the life He desires. Because such a life would be invisible, unknowable, and unreachable.
Recognizing the lordship of Jesus and the desire to be holy means first to recognize one’s need for Jesus in the first place. If our students can’t properly recognize the presence of sin in the world and in their lives, then what need do they have for Jesus? How could they possibly call Him Lord? Sin that we refuse to recognize poisons our hearts, hinders our worship, and our ability to impact the world with the gospel. How can we proclaim a gospel that we really don’t fully accept because we don’t fully accept our sin?
But Steve, sin is too negative, not loving enough, and our kids won’t respond. I disagree. For anyone who is discipling youth, your job is to preach the gospel and live out its truth as an example. This includes sin. Without it, why are we even talking about the gospel, or even discipleship?
Living the life of a disciple is about a life in pursuit of holiness.
Holiness requires the conquering of sin.
If we have any hope students will conquer sin, we need to talk about it.
It’s true, our students are divine—as my colleague would put it. They are incredible kids, created in the image of God, special, purposed, and capable of more than we could possibly imagine. But they are truly disgusting. They are full of sin, destined in so many ways to choose evil over good, self over others, and their way over God’s way. As leaders, we will watch, time and again, our students make decisions to willingly sin, justify it, excuse it, dismiss it, repent of it, and to our dismay, do it all over again.
However, contrary to mainstream and social media, I find that students deeply appreciate when adults stand firm on truth expressed in love toward those we disagree with or issues of sin. Culture may define tolerance as equal acceptance and validity of every individual and that no belief or behavior ought to be criticized, but true tolerance—the kind expressed by Christ Himself—is building relationships with people we disagree with. True tolerance is finding common ground without compromising convictions and allowing God’s Word to guide how we understand what is true.
Practice it. Master it.
It will pay great dividends as you connect with your students. But doing so requires that you are the first to model it. Remember, Paul told the Philippians to model the pattern he gave them (Philippians 2:17); the writer of Hebrews gave us numerous examples to follow (Hebrews 11); Timothy was taught to serve as an example (1 Timothy 4:12–16), to name just a few. Students need to see how a life of holiness is realized in everyday situations. How they see you respond daily to life experiences and how you use the model given to us in Scripture. Living out the hope of Christ is a skill to be practiced and mastered—and, therefore, a skill to be taught.
God’s commands for His people are not just a list of rules to follow, but the means of how to be the people He truly designed us to be. The law we discover in the Old Testament was given so that people would be aware of their sin and their need for Christ. But Jesus did not abolish the Law, suddenly giving us the freedom to act in any ridiculous way we choose. He fulfilled it. Giving us, through the Spirit, the means of living out God’s purpose and ability to conquer sin and its effects. Read the Bible from the beginning, and it won’t take very long to see how ugly sin makes things and the consequences of man’s ideas versus the blessings of God’s. Jesus’ call to live a holy life is couched in the story of redemption and His own life, death, and resurrection. Jesus repeatedly showed His disciples life’s important consequences by bringing them into situations where they could minister to the poor, the sick, and the grieving, raising their level of awareness of spiritual, physical, and emotional needs.