Most churches have people attending every week who are in desperate need of a savior but do not realize it. The challenge is to discern how to help them understand their need for Christ and lead them to make that commitment. Is strong preaching on sin and human depravity the best way?
The most relevant question for us is, “What example did Jesus set?”
Jesus preached repentance and faith, not sin and depravity. Mark 1:15 gives us a summary of his message: “The time has come! God’s kingdom is here! Repent and put your trust in the Good News.” The Greek word translated “repent” literally means “a change of mind” or “a change of purpose.” Jesus did not ignore sin, but his focus was on encouraging his hearers to change their way of living and trust God.
When Jesus did have strong words about sin, his comments usually were directed toward the legalistic, self-righteous, religious people, not the “sinners” those religious people condemned. When he was with the “sinners,” Jesus taught about God’s love for his lost children and his desire for them to have an abundant life. His message was a word of grace. He knew that in his presence people would understand how needy they were spiritually. His Sermon on the Mount gave people a direction to walk, not a critique of their mistakes.
When Jesus mentioned sin, it was almost always connected to forgiveness. When he told the parable about the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), there was no character in the story who scolded the young man for his sin. To the contrary, the wayward son “came to himself” and turned back toward home, where the Father welcomed him with open arms. Jesus didn’t say, “You are a sinner.” He said, “Go and sin no more.” There is a world of difference between the two.
There are some who preach strong sermons against sin, in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets and John the Baptizer. We have no criticism of those brothers. They follow what they understand to be the leadership of the Spirit. The Lord charges his people, “Be holy for I am holy.” (Leviticus 11:44)
Our understanding of the Spirit’s leadership, however, prompts us to preach as we believe Jesus preached – the call for a change of mind and purpose runs through everything we do. Every sermon we preach is about repentance because they all show people the difference between how we live and how God wants us to live and remind us that not living God’s way is disobedience – sin. Even when we preach a topical sermon, the core message is still that we need to accept Jesus as Lord in every area of our lives.
It is important for unbelieving attenders to be included in church life. Interaction with believers helps them understand their need for Christ and creates opportunities to lead them to commitment. We do not harangue people about sin because we believe that when Christ is lifted up, he will draw people to himself. (John 12:32) We trust the Holy Spirit, because he is the one who convicts of sin. (John 16:8)
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