This post was originally published in five parts in September 2009. It has been and remains one of the most popular posts ever published on WayneStocks.com. We have updated the content where necessary and combined all five parts into one article for the sake of convenience.
Whether you are an adult or a child, an understanding of sin is foundational to the understanding the gospel. Unfortunately, it is all too often ignored when it comes to teaching kids about God perhaps because we underestimate their capacity to understand and more likely because it is not an easy thing to teach.
An understanding of sin is critical to an understanding of grace. Without sin, there is no need for the cross. Without the cross and resurrection, there is no Christianity, and to paraphrase Paul, we are to pitied above all men. So, how do you teach the doctrine of sin to children?
I believe that it is essential that kids understand five different things about sin in order to really understand the concept of sin:
- What is sin?
- Where does sin come from?
- Who sins?
- What are the consequences of sin?
- What is the solution for sin?
#1 What is Sin?
The very first thing kids need to understand is what sin is. While this may seem like a simple concept, there is a lot more to it than meets the eye, and conveying a nuanced view of sin to kids can be difficult given their tendency towards concrete thinking,.
At a very young age (2-4), it is hard for children to understand much more than the idea that sin is the “bad things that we do.” As children get older, it is important to expand on that very rudimentary definition. Sin is not just the bad things that we do. It is also those things that we should do but don’t. It can include the thoughts that we think, the words that we utter and the attitudes that we have. Sin is essentially doing what we want to do when we want to do it rather than doing what God would have us do. In other words, sin is when we act like our own god instead of letting God be God.
I find that kids are actually quite in tune with this concept. They know that they make bad decisions, and have bad thoughts, and don’t always do what they are supposed to. Whether kids’ parents spank them, or have “talks” with them, or put them in timeout, kids understand what it means to sin. It is more a matter of getting them to understand that those actions actually represent sins more than anything else. Providing concrete examples of sin that kids can relate to is the best approach at the elementary age though it is important they understand that you are not providing a comprehensive listing but merely examples of sin.
At some point, it is critical that kids understand that sin is more than just an issue of behavior. It is important that they understand that sin comes from the heart (Matthew 15:18-19). Behavior can be corrected without ever addressing the underlying sin problem, and it is important that kids understand that sin is less about the specific actions and more about the heart attitude that gave rise to those actions. With elementary age kids, it is important to find ways to help them understand what their external actions reveal about their internal hearts. For example, the girl at school who won’t sit with the new kid because her friends don’t like him reveals that the acceptance of those kids is more important to her than God – a sin. The child who watches T.V. when his parents say he should be doing his homework does not want to submit to authority – a sin. The little boy who hits his sister because she tries to borrow his building blocks has an issue with selfishness – a sin.
In conveying this idea that the outward action is not so much the sin as the underlying heart attitude that gives rise to the action, we lay the foundation for the later discussion about the solution for sin.
#2 Where does sin come from?
Once you have established what sin is, or at least laid a foundation for understanding sin, it is important that kids understand where sin comes from. Without an understanding of the source of sin, kids will not be prepared to understand the remaining points.
Genesis 3 is very clear that sin and death entered the world through Adam and Eve’s choice to disobey God’s command. This is a great story for kids (complete with a talking snake). Coupled with Genesis 1 which lays out God’s awesome power and plan in creating the whole world, and Genesis 2 which explains how God created us in his image, Genesis 3 provides a great opportunity to talk to kids about how people rebelled against God’s perfect plan and sinned against God. It also gives you a chance to explain that through that particular sin all kinds of ugly things associated with sin entered the world, and all future human beings were affected/infected by that sin.
This can also be a great means for leading in to the next truth that kids need to learn “who sins.” The story in Genesis 3 tells how sin entered the world, and children can be taught that Adam and Eve’s sin was passed on to their children and their children and so on and so forth all the way down to us today. In that way, sin is like a last name. Kids get their last name from their parents who got it from their parents who got it from their parents and on and on and on. In the same way that you don’t get to choose your last name (you’re just born with) you are also all born with sin, and that sin separates us from God.
#3 Who sins?
The Bible is crystal clear that we all sin. No exceptions! Every human being sins and falls short of the glory of God. So, how do you convey that to kids? I appreciate the teaching of Charles Spurgeon, Prince of Preachers, on this topic. He said,
“This will necessitate your teaching the child his need of a Savior. You must not hold back from this needful task. Do not flatter the child with delusive rubbish about his nature being good and needing to be developed. Tell him he must be born again. Don’t bolster him up with the fancy of his own innocence, but show him his sin. Mention the childish sins to which he is prone, and pray the Holy Spirit to work conviction in his heart and conscience.”
Spurgeon has a way of getting directly to the point! We owe it to kids not to gloss over their sin. They must understand that they are sinners in need of a Savior, or there will never be a reason for them to accept the gift of the cross.
Here is how I might explain this concept to a group of children:
“The Bible says that we are all made in the image of God. That means that when God made people, he used Himself as the model. He gave us an imagination which reflects his imagination. We can love because He loves us. He made us creative because He is creative. He made us want to be around other people because He enjoys being in relationships. The Bible says that we are God’s masterpiece (Ephesians 2:10 NLT). YOU are God’s masterpiece.”
“But, when sin entered the world, all of that was broken. People rebelled against God and we don’t live the way God intended us to. The Bible also says that everyone sins. You sin when you disobey your parents, when you lie and when say something mean to your little brother or sister. I sin when I am impatient with my kids, when I yell, and when I try to solve problems my way rather than God’s way. Your parents sin. Your brothers and sisters sin. Your teachers at school sin. Your pastor even sins.”
“Even people who have accepted Jesus Christ in their hearts continue to sin. There has only ever been one man who lived an entirely sin free life. That man was Jesus Christ.”
Something along these lines is a good lead in to the gospel which must go hand-in-hand with any explanation of sin and is discussed in the next section.
#4 What are the consequences of sin?
The Bible is clear the God hates sin, and kids should understand that. God does not “kind of dislike” sin. God is not just irritated by sin. God hates sin! Hate is a strong word, and it is the right word to describe God’s reaction to sin. Kids should understand that Gods is perfect and without sin. He has never sinned, and He is so pure that He cannot live with people and be in relationships with people who do sin. I don’t think it hurts to explain to kids (even at a really young age) that this is called God’s Holiness. It is an important concept for kids to grasp, and it is woefully neglected in an era where kids are taught exclusively that God wants to be their friend. That is absolutely true, but there is another part of God who absolutely cannot be friends with sin.
Once children grasp that God cannot tolerate sin, they have to understand that God has created a place for people who sin and continue in their sin. That is a place where people who reject God will live forever without God. The goal in teaching kids about sin and hell is not to scare them into accepting Jesus Christ. However, in order to understand their need for Jesus, they must understand the consequences of sin. There is definitely a fine line to be walked here. I want a child to understand the penalty for sin and want him to desire the rewards of heaven, but I don’t want to use fear or greed to try to usher them into the kingdom. There is, after all, no fear in love.
#5 What is the solution for sin?
Finally, we get to the good news! There is a solution to our sin problem. In teaching kids about sin, it is critical that it be coupled with the good news of the cross. I might approach it something like this:
“Remember that we learned that sin is about an attitude of the heart. It’s about wanting to be our own God instead of following the real God. If sin were just a series of bad actions, we might be able to avoid those actions and fix our sin problem on our own. But sin is about the heart, and only God can change our hearts. Remember that God made us in his own image, as his masterpiece, and that God’s masterpiece was broken by sin. Remember that God does not sin, and He can’t live with, or be in relationship with, people who do sin. Sin has consequences and everyone must pay the price for their sin, and there is nothing that we can do about it. The consequence for sin is living forever without God. It sounds like a pretty bad situation without a good solution, doesn’t it? Fortunately, God had a solution for our sin problem before He ever made the earth. God knew that we would sin, and He knew that someone would have to pay the price for that sin. But, He also loves us very much. So, he sent his son, Jesus Christ, to earth as a man to die in our place and pay the penalty we deserve for our sin. When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, God no longer looks at us and sees sin. He looks at us and sees his sinless son.”
Kids must understand that they are sinners. However, they should also understand that they are God’s masterpieces, and God has made a way to restore his masterpiece to the way he intended it to be!
Finally, kids must understand that, accepting Jesus Christ sets us free from slavery to sin but does not make us sinless. Christians continue to sin despite the fact that they don’t want to sin. Kids should be assured that this does not mean that they are not saved and taught that God continues to work in our lives so that we can be aware of our sin and strive to sin less, but that we are not immediately made sinless. Instead, we must be aware of our sins as Christians and repent of those sins. Kids should be taught that repentance is more than just saying I’m sorry. It is admitting our sin problem to God and genuinely desiring to turn away from that sin.