If you pay attention to certain theological circles, you’ll have heard someone say something like this:
“Preachers who do not use the word “sin” in their sermons are watering down the gospel. If you aren’t willing to name sin, than you are deceiving people and offering a people-pleasing message.”
There is certainly reason to worry about the message of the Cross, Resurrection, and other foundational Christian concepts being lost or ignored. To ignore that concern, in my opinion, seems a bit naive.
Yet I’m not so sure that it can be said that if English speaking pastors do not use the word “sin” in their sermons in the way that these self-proclaimed gatekeepers insist is actually watering down the gospel. I have two basic reasons why I think it’s a bit more nuanced than that.
First, there are missional and contextual reasons to use a combination of words to communicate the biblical concept of “sin” to modern English listeners. The Hebrew verb חָטָא (ḥāṭāʾ) and nouns אָוֶן (ʾāwen), חַטָּאת (ḥaṭṭāʾt), עָוֹן (ʿāwōn) and פֶּשַׁע (pešaʿ) and the Greek nouns ἁμαρτάνω (hamartanō) and παράπτωμα (paraptōma) along with verb ἁμαρτία (hamartia) are all variously translated as “sin” or “trespass” or “wicked/evil acts” or a variety of words and concepts (often understood as “sin”).
But the bottom line is that no English word communicates a full scope of biblical theological data concerning the word “sin,” so it’s not necessarily true that an English speaking pastor who does not use the word “sin” is misleading people or watering down the gospel. One could argue that to simply use the word “sin” is to actually water down the biblical theological underpinnings of this complex and much more nuanced concept.
Second, these biblical theological underpinnings require us to talk about more than just “sin” in our discussions and we need to do that well and fully aware of the richness to, for example, Pauline soteriology. I’m concerned that those self-proclaimed gatekeepers who want to have a word count on the word “sin” in others’ sermons really miss the point. In fact, discussions on “sin” really are stepping stones toward a christological solution that restores human beings to their image bearing call!
What do you think? I’d love to know your thoughts. While I plan to address how I communicate this concept, I’d love to know how you do!
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.
I hear what you are saying, and I agree. We should do a better job describing and explaining man’s rebellion against God and what that means, without just tossing out the word ‘sin.’ There may indeed be some guys out there who are more hung up on the wording than the concept.
Yet, I think that what many of these ‘gatekeepers’ have a problem with is not the particular word ‘sin’ being omitted, but the concept of sin itself being dismissed from preaching, replacing it with softer expressions such as ‘mistakes,’ ‘problems,’ etc. When that happens the focus of the gospel does seem to be reduced to self-help, motivational speaking, etc. God becomes a way to improve our lives; an add-on to make our wildest dreams come true. Our rebellion against God is the problem, whatever words we use to describe it.
Thank God that he has completely and sufficiently provided atonement, redemption, rescue and cleansing for our sin, wickedness, iniquity, trespass, rebellion, self-rule and treason through the work of Christ on our behalf!
I don’t think people in the world really know what “sin” means other than a general judging, exclusionary, “you did something wrong” kind of word. That’s probably why some are so shy to use it. I like the contextual background of our English word, “missing the mark” in archery. When we understand that sin is what separates us from God, I think that’s where the clarity comes in. The first commandment, love God with everything, that’s what sin prevents us from doing.
To take the sanctification and holiness message away does no service to the Church, people who are wanting to grow in faith and love and to bless the world. People who want to walk in their true identities as children of God need to be equipped with truth and power to “cast off the sin which so easily entangles.”
As long as the correct meaning of the word “sin” is being communicated then there is no problem. Realistically, to water a word down means to soften it’s actual definition or meaning. For example: if I were to trade the word sin for the phrase “innocent mistake” or “accidental error” that would certainly merit a watering down of the overall definition, because sin is not something we do by accident or innocently, it’s a choice we make which brings about consequence. But, if I were to trade the word “sin” (which is often misunderstood or misintepretated in our modern English) with the phrase “disobedience against God” or “living contrary to God’s will” then I would simply be giving a clearer statement for people to digest. So I think the answer to you’re question is: it’s depends on what the alternative word/phrase is being used in place of sin, and whether or not it accurately portays the meaning of it. Hope this helps.