Talking about sin doesn’t have to involve finger-pointing, or accusations.
Message Three of Twilight Missions
If you are a world traveler prone to talk with your hands, you might want to be careful. One resource I found shows considerable differences in hand signals from one country to the next. For instance, in the United States, the “Okay” sign means alright, good to go. My source shows if you do the “OK” sign in Japan, it means money. Do it in France, and you’re calling another person a “zero.” And don’t do it at all in Brazil. Trust me on that one. I did the research.
in certain parts of China, make an “L” with your finger and it means eight, such as, I want eight eggs. Do the “L” in the United States, and you’re calling the other guy a loser. A thumbs-up in America means, “way to go!” But do this in some parts of West Africa, and you’ll deeply insult someone.
It’s all about interpretation. Any time human beings handle spiritual themes, immediately we interpret them with personal background and culture. When I was seventeen, I remember hearing the word “redemption” quite a bit. I instantly thought about S&H Green Stamps. Back in the day, when you bought something, you always got a few S&H Green Stamps with your purchase. You would take those, lick them, and put them in a little book. Then, you would take all your filled books to your local S&H Green stamp store (we had one in Alexandria, Louisiana), and if you had thousands of stamps, you could redeem them for something in the store—a cup and saucer set, or bed linens, or junky fishing equipment. Anyway, that’s where my mind went when I heard “redemption.”
When we’re involved in outreach, we’re partly assisting people to properly interpret spiritual thoughts. First Corinthians 2:13 (in some versions), says we interpret spiritual things with spiritual words. The words we use for the job are those of the Bible. We’re helping people to lay their interpretations and associations aside, and see things from God’s perspective.
First, schedule a little time to read the Bible with someone. I am not talking about calling a like-minded Jesus follower, who is a committed, clear, believer. That would be to read the Bible for mutual edification. In this case, though, I’m talking about reading for outreach. And when I say outreach, I don’t mean to find someone who is belligerent, and has problems with the Scripture, wanting to challenge every comma inside the verse. That would be reading for apologetics, which is necessary, but again, not what I’m talking about now.
I’m referring to reading for outreach with those who are in twilight, a gray zone. They were brought up in a Christian setting, but never could bring themselves to commit to anything, nor arrive at any crystalline understanding of the faith. In fact, their faith seems to be a pastiche of things religious culture says about God–sayings that look good on Facebook memes, but are hard to locate in scripture, because they’re not in scripture.
I’ll take you through one scenario related to interpreting the word “sin.”
Let’s say, you decide to read the gospel of Matthew with your friend. Yes, the first thing he will notice are all those names. But by the time you get to verse 21, the angel has spoken to Joseph telling him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, because that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. Then in verse 21, it says,
“She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
In all my years of reading Matthew chapter 1 with people, I’ve never noticed this verse landing properly. There’s a reason. In the mind of the reader, are some basic mistaken assumptions about sin. One of them is that sins must refer to things especially vile, unusual, and headline-making, like murder, terrorism, etc. The average person thinks of himself as a garden variety sinner, not Jack-the-Ripper, and so he is likely to read right over the verse, treating it like a nice, anecdotal part of the Christmas story.
The other mistaken assumption is that sins are like guilty pleasures—things you shouldn’t do, but gosh, they’re so much fun. On restaurant menus, for example, you sometimes see chocolate cake described as “sinfully delicious.” You know you shouldn’t eat that enormous slice, but you just can’t help it. If we understand sins this way, we’re liable to be underwhelmed by the thought of Jesus saving us from them. I haven’t met too many people who wanted to be delivered from something fun and delicious.
This word “sins,” therefore, needs an interpreter. That’s you. The good news is that you don’t have to come up with some kind of clever interpretation. You only need to pull out what is already there in the verse.
In scripture passages like verse 21, you’ll find a gospel opportunity, a chance for evangelism. It is time for you to pump the brakes, and slow down the reading, so your friend doesn’t miss the power of the word of God. Ask a question at this point, or make an observation. Comment upon how the very name, the identity, of Jesus is linked to His mission of saving people from their sins. “Jesus” means “Yahweh saves.” He is obviously not saving us from something uncommon, or small, but something common, and dire.
Why is it so important to be saved from our sins? Our gray zone friend might answer that unless He saves us we’ll go to hell. But a good follow-up question might be to ask why the verse doesn’t explicitly say it. Shouldn’t it say he would save his people from hell? Why is sin singled out?
If hell is the only issue to be concerned about, it’s as though my only danger is having to face the consequences of what I did. We know from the rest of the Bible, that Christ saves us from the eternal consequences of the Lake of Fire. Undoubtedly, this is the huge trump card over all competing concerns. But the way verse 21 is worded tends to suggest that the sins we’re currently committing are destroying us in some kind of current way. We need salvation from sins now.
Ask your friend what he thinks about this. He may say he’s not aware of anything ruining him. He might deny any kind of destruction that he’s aware of. But you’ve got him thinking. It may be that many ill-effects he currently suffers may be coming from a careless life of sin. God sees destruction he can’t see.
This is an evangelistic moment, and likely the first time the Bible has ever spoken directly to our friends. Perhaps they’ve logged hundreds of hours sitting through sermons in large services, but have never felt the heat turn up. If they had, they might have simply disappeared in a cloud of anonymity. But now there’s no congregation to hide in. There’s just the two of you, and Christ.
But let’s say you don’t start in the Gospel of Matthew, and instead choose Romans. By the time you make it to chapter 3, God has made many points about sin. And then along comes verses 23 and 24.
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift through the Redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
You might be tempted to feel sin is too basic a subject to bother with, but sometimes even folks with a gold star in church attendance still don’t get it. They still live by bits and pieces of sermons, poorly fit together. In fact, their fragmented theology is a large part of the reason why they remain in the gray zone.
You’d be amazed at how many church folk see the phrase “all have sinned” and think of things others have done. It’s an internal redirect. But one word in the verse stops that redirect. All. You could ask your friend, “How many do you think are included in the word ‘all’?”
You might have been reading along at a brisk pace in the earlier part of this chapter, but you’ll want to treat each thought in this verse like a speed bump. They are full of evangelistic opportunities.
Now let’s suppose your friend is willing to concede, according to Romans 3:23, that “we all make mistakes.” The problem now is that he’s minimizing sin down to the level of harmless human error, as though sin is the same as spilling a glass of milk.
You will need to help him define sin, but remember to use the words of the verse. This is an important point, otherwise, if you go off scripture and give him your own opinion, you may give the impression that ultimate answers are coming from your best guesses, not from the Bible. For sure you will use some additional words, but he will need to see that your basic thought comes straight out of the verse, and that the Bible is your authority.
In Romans 3:23, sinning means falling short of the glory of God. It means falling short of a standard, one that is not defined by the church, or by parents, or by religious culture, popular culture, or the sinner himself. It is defined by God, and who He is. Since Paul does not expound upon “glory” in a textbook way here, you’ll need to furnish some additional words. Keep them brief. Otherwise, you’ll be talking to someone with glazed-over eyes.
Glory is the sum total of all God’s goodness, mercy, love, compassion, faithfulness, righteousness, and holiness—an aggregate of His excellencies displayed. Sin means falling short of that. Even if you fell short by an inch, you may as well have missed by a million miles. Sin means doing things that look unlike God, and they make you look unlike him as well.
At this point your friend shrugs, smiles, and says, “Okay, so we’re all sinners.” That sounds like a fine admission, but often, when a person confesses that everyone is messed up, it’s simply an unconscious attempt to absolve himself or herself from individual guilt.
We think that since everyone is guilty, it grants a protection of the herd, a defense based on the sheer numbers involved. In other words, your friend is seeking to be justified (which is good), but seeking it by the wrong means. You will need to show him in the next verse (v. 24), that God will supply the justification he is looking for, as a gift.
Pump the brakes here, and help your friend to key on this thought, that we are “justified by His grace as a gift.” You will probably get a puzzled reaction.
Grace is stunning. Help your friend think about it. I once had someone protest the idea of grace, saying, “But if justification was really free, then everybody would take it!” Well, that’s the idea. There ought to be a line for free justification stretching out the door and down the street.
But something free doesn’t always provoke people to receive it. Accepting justification for free means you worked for it, and failed. Your attempts at perfection, and landing in the glory of God, fizzled. You’re a failure, and so God gives it to you for free. This is tough on human pride.
But now you can work with your friend a bit further, pulling out the next phrase, and showing him that while justification is free for us, it wasn’t for everyone. It comes “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” meaning that Jesus had to pay. At the cost of His blood on the cross, He redeemed our souls back to God. It was terribly expensive for him, so it could be free for us.
Again, all I’m doing, and all you need to do, is simply pull your material straight from the verse. No need for anything clever here. And though this is your outreach to that person, you don’t have to lean on some type of evangelistic gift. Let the Bible do the preaching. We’re only helping to get the Word in front of them.
Predictably, someone will argue. Make sure they’re mostly arguing with the Bible, not with you. I’ve heard stories about people who quarreled with simple words of Scripture, and seemed to triumph. Then they went home and cried in their bed because of the Spirit’s conviction. But remember, we are working with folks who already possess some respect for the Bible, not those who feel the need to dismantle it. That’s the idea behind Twilight Missions. We’re hoping these friends will respond to obvious things sparkling there in Scripture.
When I was 18 years old, I was on a ship crossing the English Channel, going to London. It was a new experience for me. As I walked around on deck, I absently stepped over a roped off area. A British ship steward rushed over to me, pointed to a sign, and said, “Hey, what does that say?” I read the sign out loud,
“Do not cross the roped-off area.”
I sheepishly apologized for not seeing the now very obvious sign. He stood there with a smirk, arms folded, feeling no further need for elaboration.
It’s the same idea when we work with people (except with a little more tact). Read the signs (verses) with them, ask questions, engage in conversation, and keep it on the level of “obvious.”
Here’s a few practical points in closing:
- Schedule time with your friend according to their spiritual hunger, and availability. It doesn’t have to be daily (that may burn them out, anyway). You decide with them the amount of face/phone time, and where you ought to meet. Select a location where you can focus.
- Don’t consider it cheating to pre-read. Highlight, or mark any gospel words or themes you see cropping up in the chapter, like, “repent,” “believe,” “salvation,” or “eternal life.” Plan to slow down at these points. Ask open-ended questions, share some things as well, without dominating the conversation.
- Don’t force a conclusion. You don’t need to sell anything, or insist on anything. In fact, if a disagreement occurs, you don’t even need to “win.” Instead, be observant, and sensitive. I watch people while we’re reading, and if it seems like they’re struggling with something and the pressure is coming from within, I assume it may be emanating from the Holy Spirit. I try to cooperate, by encouraging that person to give in to whatever the verse is commanding, whether it is to change a viewpoint, or change behavior. If such dynamics are not in play, I remind myself that I cannot artificially create them. Only the Holy Spirit can do that.
- And when, for whatever reason, a person hardens their heart toward some point of truth, now you’ve got the subject for the next prayer you’ll pray for him. Maybe he’s woke, and mad at everyone else’s sins, but refuses to recognize his own. You can specifically pray that the Lord would open his mind, to save or revive him. In doing so, you’ll join the Holy Spirit in His work.