A few years back, a teenager asked me a theological question after church: “Would God send someone to hell if they only ever committed one sin? And what if that sin was a small one—like saying an unkind word to a sibling?”
Well, how would you answer?
Most questions aren’t neutral; they carry assumptions that color our answers. And that’s the case here. Addressing the question requires bringing those assumptions out into the light.
At first glance, the question that teenager asked may seem to expose God as petty. But at its heart, the question betrays a deep misunderstanding of sin, people, and God himself. What exactly is sin? And how should we teach our children about it?
What is sin?
Simply put, sin is failing to conform to God’s moral will. The Bible generally divides sin into two categories: committed and omitted. In simple terms, sinning is the doing of a bad deed or the omitting of a good one.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Psalm 51:1–3
God loves word pictures because they communicate to people so well. One of the words for sin in the Bible carries the idea of “crossing a line.” When we cross over some boundary God has set, in other words, God describes that as “sin” (Rom 5:19; 1 Jn 3:4).
God uses another group of words for sin which communicate the other side of sin: “missing the mark.”
Here we shouldn’t think of an accidental slip up or a genuine attempt that falls short, but of intentional and willful neglect to do God’s will (Jam 2:8–10, Jam 4:17). My pastor describes this as “intentionally hitting the batter,” a willful miss of the strike zone.
Why do people sin?
The Bible is clear in answering this question, though the truth is hard to hear and believe. We sin because we are sinners (Rom 3:23). Something inside us is broken, so we break God’s laws.
Our sin nature may seem like an obvious point, but it’s one we often neglect in our parenting. We don’t ultimately sin because of bad forces outside of us (the world, the devil, bad friends, etc.). We sin because our hearts are sinful. Jesus put it this way:
“… evils come from within, and these are what defile a man.” (Mt 7:18–23)
That’s not to say outside forces don’t influence us for evil! James teaches that our hearts magnetize to outside evil, but it’s the heart’s desire that is the central problem.
But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. (James 1:14)
Who do people sin against?
Of all the teaching in the Bible about sin, this might be the most important. The Bible unequivocally states that every sin is first and foremost a sin against the Eternal God.
Sin is often against other people, but sin is always and chiefly against God. In other words, sin is never like “breaking a school rulebook” because we never sin against a decree only. Every sin is against a person, the Person of God.
Let me prove that to you biblically. The Bible repeatedly claims that even big horizontal sins are first and foremost sins against God.
When Abimelech almost sleeps with Sarah, God says to him in a dream:
“…it was I who kept you from sinning against me” (Genesis 20:6, emphasis mine).
When Joseph rejects Potiphar’s wife’s advances, he states:
“How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9, emphasis mine)
When David kills a man and takes his wife, he rightly orients the sin as chiefly and primarily being against God himself, so much so that he says:
“Against you, you only, have I sinned.” (Psalm 51:4, emphasis mine)
These shocking statements teach us something essential to the biblical understanding of sin. Sin is always and primarily against the Eternal God.
Why sinning against God matters
We intuitively understand that the seriousness of sin is determined by two things: the sin committed and the person the sin is committed against.
Pushing a sibling is less serious than pushing a teacher. Striking a teacher is less serious than striking a police officer. Punching a police officer is less serious than punching the President.
In other words, a punch isn’t just a punch. The person sinned against has a great deal to do with the proper and just consequence.
Every commission of unrighteousness and omission of righteousness is not against a teacher, a police officer, or even the President. Every single sin is against the Eternal God and justly demands a God-sized, God-worthy punishment. God’s justice is perfectly measured to the magnitude of his nature.
How to teach children about sin
Let’s put all this together. How does this biblical picture of sin change your fatherly discipline?
When I discipline our children, I often ask them as series of questions:
- “What did you do?”
- “Who did you sin against?”
- “Who is the most important person you sinned against?”
- “What can be done to make it right?”
With the first question, I’m after full confession using biblical terms. “I hit my sister because I was angry at her.”
With the second, I want a reckoning with the true extent of the damage. “My sister, my mom, my dad, God, etc.”
Third, I want them to regularly and consistently see that every single sin is against the God of the universe. This is also a helpful reminder for me (i.e., Dad, you’re not the most important person sinned against).
This series of questions should bring us to this conclusion: we need to confess our sin and right the wrong. Because sin isn’t primarily about breaking a law code but about causing harm to a Person, however, there is a very real sense in which the answer to “What can be done to make it right?” is “nothing.”
What would you do to “make up” for a sin against a God? What eternal consequence could you offer to pay for sin against the Eternal God? Stopping here, however, is woefully incomplete. This question sets up the most beautiful story ever told.
God loved you while you were a sinner against him and sent Jesus to die in your place, to take your God-sized sin and to give you his God-sized righteousness. In other words, when properly reckoned with, sin leads us to the gospel story. Sin properly observed leads us to God because God chases after sinners to redeem and restore them.
Growing Fathers Team
Chris serves as a part-time associate pastor at Fellowship Bible Church in Liberty, Utah. He and his wife, Megan, have three young children—Ella, Nora, and Jude.View all posts by Chris