Talking to Children (Or Anyone) About Sin and the Love of God
There are two common errors when talking about God’s love for people and his wrath in response to sin. On the one hand, some Christians speak of God’s love in a way that minimizes or completely ignores the sin problem. On the other hand, some Christians speak so much of sin and the resulting wrath of God that God’s love is completely overshadowed. The path forward is not simply finding a balanced position or a middle road but allowing the whole of the biblical witness to shape the way we talk about sin and guilt, love and forgiveness. Especially important in this discussion are 1) the examples of Jesus and the biblical authors and 2) God’s self-disclosure to Moses.
First, in the biblical writings there are examples of the way that the biblical authors, and Jesus himself, spoke about God’s love and human sinfulness. The biblical authors brought different emphases to bear based on the context into which they were speaking. Very often, when the biblical authors or Jesus confronted individuals who denied their sin, they emphasized the necessity of recognizing the sin problem (e.g., Jesus’s engagement with religious elites; John’s first letter). Even in these instances, however, God’s characteristic love is present (e.g., the parable of the Prodigal Son; John’s emphasis on love in his first letter). Jesus and the biblical authors did not avoid speaking about sin, but they also did not speak only about sin. They brought an appropriate emphasis into the contexts in which they spoke. Similarly, we should carefully consider which emphasis is required when we talk to children (or anyone) about sin and the love of God.
Second, fundamental to the biblical witness is the notion that wrath is not an attribute of God, while love is an attribute of God. God’s wrath is real—but God’s wrath is a response to sin; it is not fundamental to his character. In the primary text of God’s self-disclosure of his nature, he emphasizes the attributes of love and faithfulness (see Exodus 34:6-7). Notice the emphasis and the order of his self-disclosure. Yahweh is:
- A compassionate and gracious God
- Slow to anger
- Abounding in faithful love and truth
- Maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations
- Forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin
After this fivefold reassurance of God’s loving-kindness and disposition to forgiveness, he goes on to make clear that he will not leave the guilty unpunished—he brings consequences as a result of human sinfulness.
Moses’s response is telling—he takes sin seriously and he takes God’s offer of forgiveness seriously. He immediately knelt to the ground, worshipped, and asked for forgiveness and acceptance (vv. 8-9). In response, God forged a covenant with Israel that would provide a way for their guilt to be removed (v. 10). The possibility of the removal of guilt provides the possibility of God’s loving embrace apart from punishment and anger.
Our presentation of God, the gospel, and our relationship with him should take on this emphasis: God is loving, forgiving, gracious, patient, and kind. As we seek to share the gospel with children (or with adults), we should take this emphasis into consideration, along with the examples of Jesus and the Apostles who calibrated their emphasis to the situations and dispositions of their listeners.
Finding the right language for teaching this concept is difficult because it is always easier to separate issues in theory than it is in practice. In theory, it is quite easy to say “speak first about God’s love and only later about sin,” when in practice these items often are so interrelated that the first mention of God’s love might not be that far removed from the mention of sin. Yet, it is not so much the order but the emphasis that is the issue.
When dealing with children, the matter of discussing love and sin is complicated by at least four additional issues:
- When dealing with young children, parents may inadvertently sabotage their presentation of the gospel. There is a way of talking about sin that has the opposite of the intended effect, especially when speaking to young children. Although sin-talk is intended to emphasize a child’s need for God, sometimes there is such a strong emphasis on the sinfulness of sin and the wrath and anger of God that children become afraid of God. If parents (or church leaders) teach children about the sinfulness of sin without reassurances about the possibility of forgiveness and without communicating the strength of God’s love and his persistent patience toward sinners, we should not be surprised if children respond by trying to hide from an angry, wrathful God rather than responding in worship, asking for forgiveness and acceptance.
The natural progression in telling the gospel story is to begin with an emphasis on the loving, creating God. This is the natural starting point because it is the actual starting point of human existence. What’s more, the biblical authors delight in the way that God lovingly participates in the formation of every child, starting in the womb (cf. Psalm 139:13).
A good aid in sharing the gospel with children—and really with anyone—is Greg Gilbert’s short book, What Is the Gospel? In this book, he identifies four movements: God - Man - Christ - Response. Beginning with the identification of a loving, creating God is fundamental to the Christian message and has been the normal mode of gospel presentation, reaching all the way back to Jesus’s self-presentation (cf. Luke 19:10; John 3:6-17).
- When dealing with young children, parents and teachers need to work hard to speak concretely about abstract concepts—concepts like love, sin, and human identity. Parents and teachers should not avoid teaching abstract concepts, but they should recognize the limited capacity of children to understand the concepts abstractly. Teaching abstract concepts concretely takes skill and practice. Most significantly, parents make abstract concepts concrete by embodying the concepts. Parents are to embody God’s love, forgiveness, and patience when they deal with their children, especially in discipline, so that their children can concretely relate to God as loving, forgiving, and patient. Parents are also to embody the justice and correction of God as they fairly respond to the embodiment of sin in their children. As children grow and develop, their capacity for abstract reasoning develops and they are able to interact with the ideas of love and forgiveness, sin and guilt, in more abstract ways.
Children who are particularly fearful or troubled by sin may be experiencing a unique work of God’s Spirit in their lives. The confirmation that the Holy Spirit is doing the work of conviction of sin is the presence of another conviction, namely that Jesus provides pardon and forgiveness. If a child is particularly troubled by sin, parents and teachers likely need to emphasize the love and forgiveness of God all the more—both through direct teaching and through embodying love and forgiveness in relationship with the child.
- When dealing with young children (and growing adolescents), parents need to work hard to distinguish between a display of immaturity and a demonstration of sin. Sometimes, parents treat simple acts of immaturity as grievous sins rather than recognizing a distinction between the two. The ability to distinguish between immaturity and sinful behavior requires abstract thinking—the kind of thinking that may be undeveloped or underdeveloped in children. For that reason, parental responses (even more than direct statements) communicate to the child whether they made an error of immaturity or committed a sin. On the one hand, some parents may treat sinful behavior as simple immaturity, failing to communicate clearly about sin. On the other hand (and probably more commonly), parents respond to childish immaturity as if it is a sin, failing to embody godly patience.
- When dealing with the issue of sin and guilt in children, Christian theologians have tried to reconcile the fact that Christ bore the penalty for original, Adamic sin (Romans 5:12-21) with the fact that all people act in sin (Romans 3:23). This discussion usually surfaces in circumstances of miscarriages, infant mortality, or the death of young children because parents want to know if their child is in heaven. Did their child die as a sinner or as a child of God? But this question isn’t limited to parents who are grieving the loss of a child. All parents want to know how to raise their children as Christians even as they are too young to understand or articulate the gospel message
Answers to questions about adolescent moral culpability are not easy. Theologians have addressed this issue in different ways and for a variety of reasons, ranging from the concept of an “age of accountability” to the way that Jesus welcomed children with no call to repentance (Matthew 19:13-15). Still, there is a general sense that Christian parents should assure their young children of God’s love, even as they progressively make clear that God’s most extravagant display of love took place in Jesus’s death on the cross—a sacrificial death made necessary because of human sin.
Although Christians (and fellow-church members) may draw different conclusions about how to formulate a theology of sin with respect to children, they should recognize that this has been a thorny and complicated issue in the history of the church. The issue is not a denial of human sinfulness but a question of accountability and fundamental identity (especially related to the creation of all people in the image and likeness of God).
At Resurrection Church, we want to overwhelmingly communicate the love, forgiveness, and kindness of God that is concretely offered in the person of Jesus Christ. We want to be clear that humans have a sin problem that can only be solved by Jesus Christ—but that it really can be solved by Jesus Christ. We want to calculate our emphasis with careful consideration of the individuals with whom we are speaking. We do not want to “break the bruised reed” (Matthew 12:20), nor do we want to avoid calling the hard-hearted to repentance. For that reason, we lean into the presentation of the truth about sin and forgiveness articulated by the Apostle John:
If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. — 1 John 1:8-9.